Regional Reviews: San Diego
In a Bronx apartment during the depression, members of the Berger family are trying to live ordinary lives. Numerous scenes are devoted to different clan members. Bessie Berger (Sandy Campbell) is the matriarch, her son Ralph (J. Tyler Jones) is dating a poor orphan, Blanche, and his Grandpa Jacob (Eric Poppick) wants to be a positive influence on him. Also living in the home are Bessie's well meaning and passive husband Myron (Joe Paulson) and their outspoken daughter Hennie (Anna Rebek). The Bergers' lives are fairly uneventfuluntil they start facing conflicts that can strongly determine their futures.
An aspect of Odets' writing that immediately stands out is that his drama feels simultaneously personal and universal. He portrays the Jewish Bergers as having pride in their cultural heritage, and the problems they face are relatable to audiences from different backgrounds. There are a lot of conversations between characters, but Odets ironically creates a sense of isolation. Besides the exception of the connection between Jacob and Ralph, there isn't a whole lot of bonding in the family. Seclusion also exists for war veteran boarder Moe Axelrod (Max Macke), janitor Schlosser (Alex Guzman), and immigrant Sam Feinschreiber (Tom Steward). With aid from Chris Renda's affecting lighting, Kurner visually brings the point home on her set. At the top of the building, Schlosser and Sam spend significant chunks of time alone in their rooms.
One of the main reasons so much disconnection exists within the Berger family is Bessie's overbearing personality. Judgmental of her children's decisions, she wants to influence every choice made in her residence. Campbell's performance features moments of toughness and humor, as well as deep pain when times get rough. The ensemble members give humanistic portrayals of the struggling Americans Odets has created. While it helps that they vocally sound authentic (thanks to dialect coach Jo Anne Glover), what counts even more is how well developed each depiction becomes throughout the night.
Part of the beauty of Odets' tale is the way that almost every character evolves, from the opening scene to the conclusion. Some writers focus on only one or two character arcs, but Odets includes several that pay off after intermission. Kurner's direction keeps theatregoers interested in every plot plot point in Awake and Sing!. Whether it is a major group discussion or a one-on-one verbal confrontation, she allows every conversation to feel significant.
No one in the cast sings in Awake and Sing!, though melodies are used in a couple of key sequences. Melanie Chen's audio adds texture to the Depression-era setting. Guzman doesn't play the guitar often, but his musicianship fuels a moving and stunning resolution. The only time sound feels a little unwelcome is in a late heated argument where background music and unnecessary sound effects are used. Acting by the ensemble members is more than enough for the argument to strike a chord.
Even though so much of Odets' narrative has aged well, certain situations in the last third of the play may initially seem a little melodramatic. Yet these parts of the script end up being touching when they are further explored through the climax.
Compassionate and not without a silver lining, Kurner finally gives San Diego County residents a chance to experience Odets' classic in live theater. With any luck, it won't be another 82 years before another interpretation plays near America's Finest City.
New Village Arts Theatre presents Awake and Sing! through April 16, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village. Tickets start at $20.00 and can be purchased online at www.newvillagearts.org or by phone at 760-433-3245.