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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Awake and Sing!
Artistry
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Little Women


Kate Guentzel, Jon Andrew Hegge, Miriam Schwartz,
Ryan London Levin and Charles Numrich

Photo by Devon Cox
Clifford Odets is one of America's foremost playwrights, rising to prominence in the 1930s. In the development of American dramatic realism, Odets is considered by some a link between Eugene O'Neill before him and such playwrights as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams who followed. His earliest plays were decidedly left-leaning, dealing with the concerns of working people caught in the grip of the Great Depression. Though many of his titles are well known—Waiting for Lefty, Golden Boy, Clash by Night and The Country Girl among them—they are seldom revived, though the recession of 2008 spurred a flash of interest in Odets' plays, with their themes of unrealized hopes and working class dreams fallen short and reflecting the headlines.

Artistry has chosen to reach back to Odets to mount a gold-standard production of Awake and Sing!. The play premiered in 1935 and was Odets' first popular hit, notable as the first Broadway play to focus solely on a Jewish-American family. Yet, while there is no denying the Berger family's Jewishness, revealed through turns of phrase, references to Jewish customs, and the plight of European Jews, the play is not about being Jewish, nor about conflicts between Jews assimilating into mainstream culture. It simply depicts a Jewish family facing the same woes as millions of other families who worried every day whether they might, like so many, be unable to pay their bills and be put out on the street.

The Bergers—father Myron, mother Bessie, 21-year-old son Ralph and 26-year-old daughter Hennie—live discontentedly in an overcrowded apartment in the Bronx, along with Bessie's father Jacob and a tenant, Moe Axelrod. Mild mannered Myron started law school, but had to quit to take a job. He accepts the hard times under which they live, finding comfort in the wise words of his hero, Teddy Roosevelt. Bessie is a pit bull who takes up the mantle of fighting for the Bergers' survival, even when that fight pits her against her own family members. Hennie, at 26 and facing spinsterhood, has adopted a cynical, hard-bitten attitude about the prospects for her future. Ralph works as a clerk for peanuts. He yearns to break away from the family fold, which feels like a yoke on his neck, to make something of himself, though knows not what that would be or how he would attain it. He has his eyes fixed on a girl, but Bessie hobbles Ralph's romance at every turn, lest it diminish his commitment to the home front. If that sounds like a reference to battle, it is. For Bessie, life is a series of skirmishes aimed at keeping the Berger family both solvent and intact.

Bessie's father Jacob, on the other hand, holds on for dear life to the ideals of socialism, carried to the New World from his Rumanian homeland. He sees capitalism as the root the world's evils and is angered that Bessie defines success in its terms. He is even more disturbed by his son Morty's flagrant show of his success as a businessman. Morty dresses as if to advertise his wealth, but has little hunger to engage the world diminished: while Jake and Myron read the newspaper, Morty reads comic books. Jacob has given up on his daughter and son, but holds out hope that Ralph will take up his mantle and shake up the word. He exhorts Ralph to "Wake up! Be Something! Make your life something good."

Finally, there is the Berger's lodger Moe, who lost a leg in World War I, lives on his army pension, and plays the horses. His freely expressed desire for Hennie adds to her disdain for his existence, and their blunt exchanges scratch beneath their surface skin. When Hennie is forced to admit to her parents that she is, as they said in those days, "in trouble," Bessie goes into high drive, scheming ways to avoid shame and assure that Hennie and her child will be provided for.

Director Ben McGovern makes the most of the assets Odets bestows upon the play, fluidly advancing the narrative and building tension in its dramatic arc. The situations in Awake and Sing! are fraught, but as important as the well-tooled narrative is the attentive development of characters who seem believably to have lived whole lives and had complex relationships before we meet them. Odets also had a flair for dialogue, with the snappy 1930s colloquialisms adding to the play's immersive feeling. McGovern guides his cast to use that rich dialogue to draw meaning not only from what is said, but how it is delivered. The work of dialect coach Keely Wolter makes an important contribution, so that the actors sound as if they just walked in from the Bronx's Jewish-American enclave of the 1930s.

This is truly an ensemble piece, so each actor must make his or her mark for the whole to work, and that they do. Kate Guentzel creates the most heat as sharp-tongued Bessie, chilling in her immoderate blend of love for her family and anxiety for their future. Charles Numrich is fabulous as Jacob, fed up with the way the world has shifted, conveying a grandfather in decline fighting to yet make his mark. As Ralph, in whom Jacob vests his hopes, Ryan London Levin displays both the ardent fervor of youthful idealism and the struggle to find the confidence to step out from the world he has known. Miriam Schwartz is corrosively embittered as Hennie, plainly masking a lifetime of being at the mercy of others' expectations and unable to fulfill, or even identify, her own dreams.

Paul Rutledge creates a singular character as Moe Axelrod, the outsider who finds himself cast among the Bergers, whose separate history of loss and struggle offers an alternative view of the way life's hardships may be faced and overcome. Jon Andrew Hegge is appropriately self-effacing and soft spoken as Myron, appearing to have decided it was not worth struggling against the bad hands that have been dealt to families like theirs, but just play the cards and accept their losses. Corey DiNardo plays Sam Feinschreiber, a simple but virtuous man ensnared in the Bergers' efforts to maintain a veneer of rectitude with dignity and grace.

The play entirely takes place in the living-dining room of the cramped Berger apartment, perfectly realized by scenic and properties designer Katie Phillips, with attention to details such as photos on the walls, doilies on the tables, and well-worn upholstery that support the verisimilitude of Odets writing. Likewise, Sonya Berlovitz has fashioned costumes straight out of a depression era stylebook, humble (other than for the show-boating Morty), but with apparent effort to keep up with the times. All other tech credits are in keeping with the overall sense that love and care has been bestowed upon this production.

As noted above, there are not so many opportunities to see the plays of Clifford Odets, a playwright whose contributions to the canon of American drama is often overlooked. Here is such an opportunity, as polished and thoughtfully staged as can be. Awake and Sing! is among the finest of Odets' work. It creates a complete world within the confines of a depression-era apartment. Its characters are brilliantly human, trying to find their best selves in spite of the hard times that surround them and the constraints that familial love and cultural norms place upon them. This is a play and production well worth seeking out.

Awake and Sing!, through October 7, 2018, in Artistry's Black Box Theater at Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $46.00; Seniors: $41.00; Next Generation (30 and under): $15.00. For tickets call 952-563-8575 or go to artistrymn.org.

Playwright: Clifford Odets; Director: Benjamin McGovern; Scenic and Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Stage Manager: Todd Harper.

Cast: Corey DiNardo (Sam Feinschreiber), Kate Guentzel (Bessie Berger), Jon Andrew Hegge (Myron Berger), Howard Held (Uncle Morty), Ryan London Levin (Ralph Berger), Charles Numrich (Jacob), Paul Rutledge (Moe Axelrod), Miriam Schwartz (Hennie Berger).


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