Play: “Awake and Sing!”
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus
Dates: April 27, 28, 30, May 1, 4, 5, 7, 8
Tickets: $34-$38; contact 314-442-3283 or www.newjewishtheatre.org
Story: The Bergers live much like other middle-class folks during the Great Depression. The extended family, run by matriarch Bessie, shares a well-appointed tenement apartment in the Bronx that reflects Bessie’s personality. Their living quarters are modest but spotless, and everything has its place within their narrow world.
Bessie’s father Jacob is a fervent communist who sees Karl Marx and Soviet Russia as the great hopes for the common man. Bessie’s husband Myron struggles to make ends meet with his dead-end job, while son Ralph works in the factory of Bessie’s wealthy brother Morty. Daughter Hennie is frustrated with her work as a secretary and dreams of grander adventures, but spurns the constant advances of family friend Moe Axelrod, a cynical type whose heart and body both were crippled in World War I.
When Hennie announces she is pregnant by a man who has left town, Bessie engineers her daughter’s marriage to soft-spoken immigrant Sam Feinschreiber, while simultaneously forbidding Ralph to get serious with an orphaned woman he loves. As the menace of war looms again in Europe with the rise of Hitler’s Germany and the Bergers hear rumblings of the persecution of Jews overseas, Bessie fights to keep her own family as neat and orderly as her tidy home.
Highlights: Clifford Odets’ sobering dissection of a model American family, circa 1935, is as powerful now as it was when it first premiered more than 75 years ago. Given superior source material as a starting point, director Steve Woolf mounts a masterful production for the New Jewish Theatre that is carefully calibrated to synchronize with the inherent rhythms of Odets’ script. The result is a powerful, absorbing, compelling evening of theater that resonates with every impeccably delivered line uttered by Woolf’s smoothly polished cast, an ensemble of excellence that is both exhilarating and affecting.
Other Info: The evening starts with a meticulous realization of the Bergers’ tightly controlled living quarters as envisioned by set designer Scott Neale and properties designers Wendy Renee Greenwood and Lauren Kissell. From the precisely arranged family photos on the clean if functional wallpaper to the tidy kitchen and dining area to the authentic-looking newspapers of the day and the treasured phonograph records in Jacob’s tiny side room, we know that Bessie rules her roost with an unchallenged force. The men’s suits and ladies’ attire designed by costumer Garth Dunbar and the pop and classical melodies woven into Noah Thomas’ sound design pinpoint the era with a proper stamp, while Hans Fredrickson’s lighting bathes not only the main set but accentuates the tenement feel with a skyline that pronounces itself when the light dims.
Woolf extracts impressive performances by his stellar players, so much so that it’s difficult to single anyone out in this superior troupe. A heart-wrenching scene between Jason Cannon and Julie Layton, though, as the sarcastic Moe makes one final, desperate attempt to win the love and spirit of the caustic Hennie is exhaustively rewarding and underscores the power of this production. Cannon carefully emphasizes Moe’s seeming indifference, while Layton brings Hennie’s seething unhappiness to the fore with icy glances as well as prickly words.
Bobby Miller is marvelous to watch as the aged Jacob, whose menial life has been fueled by grand dreams that he shares with his grandson, even as his daughter cruelly snipes at him with her harshly measured words. As Ralph, Aaron Orion Baker once again demonstrates his magnificent ability to immerse himself into a role and illuminate its possibilities, showing Ralph chafing for life with meaning.
Elizabeth Ann Townsend’s depiction of Bessie is glorious, which it needs to be as Bessie is the cynosure of the Berger family and drives the plot with her desperate struggle for ‘proper’ happiness. Gary Wayne Barker beautifully complements Townsend’s determined demeanor as her kind but ineffectual husband, a man whose slumped shoulders say more than any dialogue. Jerry Vogel is both genial and coldly powerful as cunning businessman Morty, while Jordan Reinwald (despite an odd-looking beard) is quietly convincing as Hennie’s hard-working but unappreciated husband Sam. Terry Meddows rounds out the cast with a couple of small but handsomely delivered scenes as the building janitor.
It’s a precious treat to see such a national treasure as “Awake and Sing!,” especially in such a strikingly realized presentation as this.
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.