I have to confess that as a theatre professional for more than forty years and as a drama student before that, I had never seen Clifford Odets “Awake and Sing.” Oh, I probably read it in school or witnessed students perform scenes from it, but never did attend a full-blown staging until I saw Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s simply smashing production of the play. The Odyssey production was a revelation to me. Expertly played by veteran performers under the guidance of a director, Elina de Santos, who has decades of experience with the play, “Awake and Sing” is gripping; it vibrates with high stakes tension as the dreams and aspirations of one family teeter on the brink of social disaster.
Generated by the progressive fervor of the 1930s and the economic degradation of the Great Depression, the famed Group Theatre, in which Odets served as the resident playwright, was dedicated to bringing the techniques of Stanislavski to America in service of social action. Addressing the disparities of the capitalist system and the fragile situation of the working poor was paramount for Odets, having grown up in the very neighborhood in which he sets his play. Odets’ “Awake and Sing” is the story of one family struggling to attain and retain a decent life in a three-bedroom tenement apartment in the Bronx.
The Berger family is held together by the fierce dedication of mother Bessie (Marilyn Fox in a titanic performance), who rules with an iron fist, declaring what is right and proper, riding rough shod over those who may have other ideas or desires. She is a powerful conniver. Her husband Myron (Robert Lesser) is a milquetoast of a man, gentle and good-natured, with a whimsical belief in the possibilities of luck. Grandfather Jacob (Allen Miller), a loving, old radical Marxist who never could keep a job, takes solace in his books and the recordings of the soaring voice of Enrico Caruso. He dotes on his grandson Ralph (charismatic James Morosini), a youth with romantic, idealistic desires. Twenty-four year old daughter Hennie (the ideal Melissa Paladino) is a free spirit who clashes with her mother and chafes under her rule. Wealthy businessman, Uncle Morty (Richard Fancy, who fills the space in an effusive, broad-brushstroke performance), is treated like a king by the Bergers who cater to him with no small degree servility. His wealth helps prop up the family.
Rounding out the cast, Moe Axelrod (intense David Agranov), an abrasive World War I veteran who lost a leg in combat, lives on the fly as a gambler and shady dealmaker. He is bitter, aggressive and filled with a passion for Hennie, who, for good reason, spurns him. As Sam Feinschriber (Gary Paten in a finely honed performance), a shy, timid, nebbish of a man, is regarded by Bessie as a suitable husband for Hennie, who has a different opinion. And as Schlosser, a German immigrant and the building janitor, burly Dennis Madden creates a harried, sad man, a not unsympathetic outsider.
The cast is a superb ensemble in a play of living, breathing people. They are complicated and not pretty. It is distilled life. Odets was well aware of the value of realism. In Act I, in a moment of crisis, a distraught Myron groans, “It’s like a play on the stage.” Later in Act II, Bessie, after returning from an outing to the movies, says, “We saw a very good movie, with Wallace Beery. He acts like life, very good.” This cast acts like life.
The production is excellent. The set by Pete Hickok (lit by Leigh Allen) has all the realistic markers of a 1930s flat in spades. Costuming by Kim DeShazo is flawless and the sound design of Christopher Moscatiello, from preshow music of the era to interlude music to the sounds of Caruso couldn’t be better.
When Odyssey produced “Awake and Sing” in 1994 with the same director and three of members of the current cast, it ran for nine sold out months. It is easy to see why.
“Awake and Sing” runs through November 29 at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles. Don’t miss it!