The Pittsburgh Public Theater is presenting this year's only major production of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing! at the O'Reilly Theatre. Odets, a founding member of the Group Theatre, is thought of as one of the most important dramatists of the social condition of 1930s America. He writes from a firm leftist position, always the champion of the downtrodden, with not very subtle urgings for "the people" to rise and force the hand of their oppressors.
Awake and Sing! features the Berger family, a dysfunctional group of people each with his or her own set of personal failures, living together in a Bronx apartment during the Great Depression years of the mid 1930s. Bessie is the matriarch, angry and eventually hostile, barking orders and ruling the roost. Her husband, Myron, is meek and quiet, either able to ignore the turmoil around him or withdrawn into his own world. Bessie's father Jacob, who finds great comfort in listening to records of opera singer Enrico Caruso, is intent on guiding grandson Ralph to put into use the tenants of Karl Marx that Jacob believes in. Ralph is still young enough to be idealistic though his mother, father, and sister certainly don't encourage an optimistic outlook. Hennie, daughter of Bessie and Myron, is pregnant and abandoned by the baby's father. She reluctantly seeks legitimacy for her child by marrying Sam Feinschreiber who she not only doesn't love, but doesn't even like or respect. Uncle Morty is the sole financial success of the family. He shares his wealth in his own way, a way that doesn't carry family love or compassion, but is more flaunting in nature. Moe Axelrod, a bookie and crippled WWII veteran, is perhaps the most angry of all. He becomes a pseudo family member, following the lead of his strong attraction to Hennie.
Juliet Landau and Marilyn Fox
The three act play is gritty and intense, but not without humor. The characters are strung so tightly that frequent outbursts are inevitable and a form of relief. There is little happiness in the Berger household, but an abundance of tension; this atmosphere is depicted well on the O'Reilly stage. Marilyn Fox plays a Bessie Berger full of rage and she vocalizes this rage at high volume. Fox is excellent in the portrayal of this frustrated woman, but the source of the anger, the rage, and the frustration is never really clarified. Larry John Meyers also does well with the role of Myron. Myron is oblivious, his method of coping with his failures, and always hopeful of winning big at the horse track, which maybe would relieve some of the guilt he carries.
Gene Dynarski shows how Jacob's dreams have not died, though he spends his days with little useful activity. Dynarski brings great poignancy to this role. The vessel of Jacob's remaining hopes is Ralph, who remains the least jaded of the cast of characters. Jacob doesn't know which way to turn to escape the bleakness of his family; though he can sense his grandfather is showing him the one ray of hope for his future, he seems to be hesitant and fearful of breaking out and making an active effort to better himself. Jarrod Fry is perhaps not tormented enough in this role, and distractingly uneven with his Brooklyn Jewish accent (highly obvious because of the excellent accents provided by the rest of the cast), but he otherwise performs admirably.
The real powder kegs of Awake and Sing! are Moe and Hennie. Hennie fears a repeat of her mother's life and is desperate to escape, and her path of escape involves Moe. The two trade insults from the beginning of the play, with humor and sexual tension. Though many of Moe's lines are Damon Runyon-esque, Karl Bury almost makes them sound real, and he is appealing and seething as this character who has lived through very bad times and sees Hennie as his hope of some shred of happiness. Juliet Landau plays Hennie almost too big - as if the O'Reilly Theatre were Carnegie Hall. Her gestures are large and her expressions are exaggerated. Hennie must be bitter and bold, but a little toning down would improve her performance.
Robert Trebor is an excellent Uncle Morty. Detached and self-absorbed, he cannot or will not identify with the plight of the rest of the Bergers. David Crawford (Sam Feinschreiber) also does a good job with his role.
The set is wonderfully designed by James Noone. His Bronx lower middle class dwelling is perfectly appointed, and the expanded design evokes the exterior of the building and provides a true city feeling. Also well done are costumes by David Murin and lighting design by Phil Monat.
Awake and Sing! is really a period piece and, though a juxtaposition of domestic problems and socialist causes is jarring at times, it is still an interesting work to see on stage. Director Elina de Santos has put the production together well, avoiding a stale or dull feeling, and providing a clear picture of Odets' view of the mid '30s. Even though some of the sentiments are no longer totally relevant to our society, the strong sense of socialist history is inescapable.
Awake and Sing! plays at the O'Reilly Theatre for Pittsburgh Public Theater through May 26. For tickets and further information, call (412) 316-1600 or visit the Public's Box Office at the O'Reilly Theater, or visit www.ppt.org. The Public's next production will be Fully Committed.
Awake and Sing!