Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Awake and Sing!
Santa Clara University Theatre Department
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of Clybourne Park and Kiss Me, Kate

Three generations of a working-class Jewish family are crammed into a Bronx flat where a suitcase can serve as a combined bureau and closet, Yiddish-rich accents from Eastern Europe fill the air, and escape from Depression-era struggles is variously sought via Caruso recordings, frequent visits to the silver screen, or entering the latest sweepstakes contest. Tension visibly hovers in this household where everyone has to contribute to put food on the table and all have different versions of the Great American Dream running through their veins. Dinner conversations often erupt into battles where biting words fly between parents, children, siblings, and a boarding family friend. But running underneath all the hurtful eruptions, slammed doors, and looks that could kill is a firm commitment for family survival and determined hopes for the next day to be better than the last, no matter the cost today. The Santa Clara University Theatre Department brings to the Louis B. Meyer Theatre a compelling, beautifully constructed Awake and Sing!, the much-loved 1935 play by the great Clifford Odets about the Berger family and eventually about any family recently arrived, then or now, on American shores.

Visiting as guest director from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Scott Kaiser has taken a group of university students and transformed them into an ensemble professional in every respect of its performance. Given a similarly aged university troupe, he has expertly coached each to assume with full believability three generations, ranging all along the spectrum from sixteen to seventy. Thorough study and discussion of the 1930s immigrant experience of Ashkenazi Jews is evident in the sensitivities, the mannerisms, and the personalities each of these actors brings to Odets' cast of idiosyncratic characters. Accents have been impressively honed (brava to voice and dialect coach Kimberly Mohne Hill), and every supporting aspect of the production further ensures an air of authenticity. The dining and living rooms with peeks into adjoining rooms and hallway created by Jerald Enos along with the meticulously adorned period costumes of Barbara Murray produce a picture right out of a textbook on the '30s. A mail carrier plane flies in sound overhead, with audience looking up to see where it is coming from, thanks to the excellent sound effects by David Sword. And the flickering electric light atmosphere of a Depression flat lends just the right shadows and bright spots due to Derek Duarte's lighting execution.

Bessie Berger is the stubborn-willed matriarch who strives to steer every aspect of her household with an iron fist and a sharp tongue, barking orders even to her own father to take out the dog Tootsie, to turn off his beloved Caruso, and to keep his favorite books out of her living room. Maura Bonini is frightfully brilliant as she huffs and puffs, sizzles and snaps, and pounces with fury at any sign her Bessie is being challenged in her role as prime protector of family and architect of their futures. Channeling the simple, spacey nature of Jimmy Stewart's Elwood P. Dowd, Lee Harrold is her hen-pecked, meek, and always submissive husband Myron. Wandering rather aimlessly and almost unseen while playing off his own script quite unconnected to anything going on at the time, he often makes random comments that clearly fascinate him but appear to be unheard by anyone else.

Connected by a special bond that is evident from their initial exchange, grandpa Jacob and his teenage grandson Ralph (whom he calls "Boychick") share liberal, even radical political views and conspire on ways for Ralph to sneak out and see his girlfriend, whom Bessie despises because she is not Jewish. Cameron Wells is the spry, calculating Jacob who bears in bent-shoulder silence the verbal flailing of his daughter while seeking refuge in his music and books as he gazes into space with content, otherworldly glow. Drew Descourourez brings the intensity of a sixteen year old's passions and desires to full life as his Ralph gets on his soapbox to rant at his family about why he cannot have his own room or new black-and-white shoes or as he melts into a mushy ball describing how his girlfriend is "So beautiful, you look at her and cry."

Excellent portrayals abound throughout this cast of nine. Tabitha Petrini is the proud, self-interested daughter Hennie who sneers with her own brand of viciousness at her mother's attempts to marry her off. But marry she does (after a surprising, tear-filled announcement), and Derek Sikkema steps into this household as another brow-beaten husband who looks with longing, puppy eyes for any sign of affection from his ignoring bride. Lee Harold completes the Berger family as son Morty, a successful but callous dress manufacturer who snidely belts "Quack, quack" every time he perceives someone is weaker than he (and that easily includes everyone but his Mother) and who storms in with remarks like, "What kind of house is this? It hasn't even got an orange!"

Along with a few shuffling appearances by apartment maintenance man Schlosser (Andrew Erwin) who also must endure the holy wrath of Bessie, Max Jennings is the final member of this setting, friend and boarder Moe Axelrod. As a World War I veteran now with one wooden leg and with a deliciously sharpened accent and manner like that of a street-smart gangster, Mr. Jennings' Moe sits in the easy chair with his bum leg on a hassock making observations and pronouncements with a smirk and sense of all-knowing about this Berger family and the world at large. He also is both sinister and sexually tantalizing in his constant flirting and oft-forceful approaches directed at Hennie. His is a well-tuned performance that commands attention.

In the end, this is a play about the dreams of people who so desperately want not just to survive today's hardships but also to thrive in tomorrow's new American world that fits each of their pictures of perfection. Jake has spent his life steeped in Marxist ideals but knows all of his 70-year-old hopes will now live "only in the head." He urges Ralph to "Do what is in your heart ... carry on yourself a revolution .. but most of all, act." Bessie tells her son, "With me, it's one thing .. a boy should have respect for his future," which for her means work hard, keep the family's total interest as primary, and sacrifice any of today's personal whims and passions for tomorrow's possible security. In the end, as arriving immigrants' offsprings must do, Ralph makes his own choice about pursuing his American dream. His choice of how he will awake tomorrow and sing his own song builds on and fulfills all the disparate aspirations of the family he has so wrestled to understand.

Congratulations and mazel tov to a skillfully crafted and heart-filled Awake and Sing! by Scott Kaiser and his cast and team of Santa Clara University.

Awake and Sing! continues through November 14, 2015, at the Louis B. Meyer Theatre on the Santa Clara University Campus. Tickets are available at

Be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Jose/Silicon Valley area

- Eddie Reynolds

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