Awake and Sing!
Also see Susan's review of Nevermore
The production of Odets’ Awake and Sing! now at Washington’s Arena Stage, directed by Arena’s founding artistic director Zelda Fichandler, proves that concern to be unwarranted. It’s solidly directed and acted with sensitivity, generosity, and genuine warmth.
The 1935 play was Odets’ first major success, focusing on three generations of a Jewish family in the Bronx trying to live and even succeed in harsh conditions. This production's set by Andromache Chalfant makes the point before any actors even appear: the apron in front of the stage displays broken chairs, discarded portraits, and other scraps of furniture, suggesting families who have been evicted because they couldn’t afford to pay their rent.
While the time is the middle of the Depression, the family of indomitable Bessie Berger (Jana Robbins) and her meek husband Myron (Steve Routman) is at least hanging on. The family also includes Bessie’s father, Jacob (Robert Prosky), an eastern European immigrant who believes in Socialism rather than God, and the Bergers’ two adult children, Ralph (Adam Green) and Hennie (Miriam Silverman).
The drama is naturalistic, based in the interactions between the characters. Hennie is already 26 and, as her mother says, not getting any younger; she has two suitors, Moe Axelrod (Adam Dannheisser), a sharpie who lost a leg in the Great War, and hard-working recent immigrant Sam Feinschreiber (Richard J. Canzano). Ralph, meanwhile, is in love with a girl his mother scorns because she’s not Jewish.
The class issue is another major concern. Myron, who idolizes Teddy Roosevelt and his can-do philosophy of success, has spent his life as a haberdashery clerk, and Ralph has an aimless job in the garment trade. In contrast, Bessie’s brother Morty (Brian Reddy) worked his way up to own a garment factory, so he can afford to be generous to his relatives when he feels like it.
Odets wrote with a sort of vernacular lyricism, heightening the words without making them too distant from everyday speech. Jacob’s criticism of capitalism boils down to “Life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills,” and Ralph compares the beauty of his girlfriend to stars and “French words.”
Prosky gives another rock-solid performance, giving an indication of how Jacob has lived his life, and what causes his ultimate defeat. He is well matched with Robbins as a tough-minded woman but a fair one, determined to hold everyone else’s life together regardless of what they might want. The others all have their moments, from Silverman’s defiant, wounded pride and Canzano’s constant sense of being an outsider in his own life, to Dannheisser’s hard shell.