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A CurtainUpBerkshires Berkshire Review

Awake and Sing!

On the calendar it's a different place, but here without a dollar you don't look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year -- this is life in America --- Bessie
Then it's wrong. . . Sink or swim-- I see it. But it can't stay like this . .  every house lousy with lies and hate. . . We don't want life printed on dollar bills, Mom--Ralph
When Clifford Odets ' Awake and Sing! opened under the auspices of the Group Theater at the Belasco Theater America was still in the midst of The Great Depression. Bessie Berger's talk about people who were dispossessed from apartments, their belongings dumped out on the streets of Brooklyn and the Bronx, was not fiction but every day reality. Audiences recognized their own parents and aunts and uncles in the Bergers. They well knew how economic uncertainty could play havoc with a family's value system, letting parental despair and fear get in the way of doing what's really best for their children. When Moe Axelrod, the tough-as-nails boarder in love with the Berger daughter Hennie, declares that "the big shots who lost all their coconuts are still jumping off the high building like flies." they knew he was not exaggerating

Awake and Sing had only a modest run of 134 performances. Yet, along with Waiting for Lefty, which was produced in the same year, it established Odets as an authentic voice of the struggling working people. For a while he was regarded as the heir to Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into the Night and forbear to Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Lilian Hellman's The Little Foxes

True to his Socialist beliefs Odets gave at least the younger members of the family cause to " awake and sing" ("Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust" -- Isaiah). Despite the upbeat ending, however, it is an American tragedy, an individualized portrait of an era that left what Carolyn Bird called an "invisble scar" on those who lived through it.

The tragedy begins with Bessie, forcing her pregnant daughter Henny to follow in her pragmatic footsteps with a loveless marriage to a man who's not the baby's father with neither Bessie's husband or father intercepting the deception. Bessie's unvarnished view of life in America in 1934 dominates that of the dreamers in her family: Son Ralph, who yearns for love and freedom from a life "printed on dollar bills", Grandfather Jacob who still spouts Marxist ideals but sustains himself with his Caruso records and the Milquetoast Myron who lives on past history and hopes of a windfall from a racetrack bet. The only family member Bessie doesn't try to control, in fact her role model for turning her family's gray life into one closer to the images of the calendar illustrators, is her brother Morty. By being as tough on the workers in his dress manufacturing business as his sister is on her family, he has survived the Depression, but this same attitude also applies to his family. He pays his father for cutting his hair, offers Hennie some free dresses, but does nothing substantial to help out his sister's needy family.

While Odets left a sizeable body of work, and his film script for The Sweet Smell of Success is currently being adapted as a Broadway musical, Awake and Sing never achieved the kind of production volume of O'Neill's or Miller's plays. His leaning toward agitprop make even this, his most polished stage play, something of an artifact. As with last season's revival of Lillian Hellman's first and not often done play, Toys In the Attic (Our Review), the Berkshire Theatre Festival has given Awake and Sing a beautifully staged and authentic production. If memories of the Great Depression have dimmed even for the oldest members of the audience, the play still displays Odets' special gift for bringing real people on stage and letting them express their thoughts with razor-sharp, life-like expression rather than staged dialogue.

Unfortunately, Marilyn Fox's unremittingly shrill rendition of Bessie fails to bring out the life-loving woman who once had dreams of her own beneath the controlling monster mother. By the time she does, in the final act, it's too late. This failure to show the vulnerability beneath the hard-driving exterior is most evident from the strong work done by Mark Feuerstein as the family outsider and boarder, Moe Axelrod. Like Bessie, Moe, a bookmaker who lost a leg in World War I, has no illusions about life and as he's stacks spare wooden legs in the closet he carries a sawmill of chips on his shoulder. But unlike Fox, Feuerstein, lets us see and feel Moe's physical and emotional pain. The fact that Odets has given him the sharpest dialogue helps, of course (e.g.: "What this country needs is a good five-cent eathquake". . . ), but it's the way he delivers those lines and his body language that make him the play's most sympathetic and dynamic character. With Shiva Rose's Hennie turning her husband into another Milquetoast but otherwise showing little emotion, Feuerstein has little support in conveying the sexual sparks that flash every time he and Hennie trade insults instead of the loving words fighting to get out. Beautiful though she is, Rose plays her part so distantly and superficially you wonder what about her inspires the tough Moe to turn poet, confessing "you're home for me, a place to live!" and beg her not to "gimme ice when your heart's on fire"

Director Elina de Santos does get some fine work from the other men in the Berger family. David Margulies, who seems to specialize in gentle Jewish men, is well cast as the idealistic Jacob passing on the awake and sing torch to his grandson, an endearing Josh Radnor. John Rothman is effective as the inept well-meaning Myron who knew he was destined to be a failure in life when he grew bald. John Cirigliano has some touching moments as the adoring husband who's whose every touch makes Hennie recoil. Though on stage least frequently, Alan Blumenfeld stands out as the family's only financial success, the self-satisfied, self-centered Uncle Morty. But despite these solid performances and Lawrence Miller's atmospheric scrim set, evocatively lit by Ann G. Wrightson, Ms. de Santos has not managed to keep this production from often seeming to be as long-lasting and heavy as the Great Depression.

A footnote to a comment overheard during the second intermission -- "This is a Jewish family but I don't get a sense of their Jewishness": According to Awake & Singing, Classic Plays From the America Jewish Repertoire (Penguin Books), the first draft, titled I Got the Blues, did have many Yiddish expressions which Odets edited out to meet the Group Theatre's objection to its too narrow focus. The play was, however, translated into Yiddish shortly after its Broadway run. It's also worth noting that the actor playing the sensitive 22-year-old Ralph in the original Broadway production was a 22-year-old-actor named Jules Garfield who as John Garfield became a Hollywood star. He was best known for his chip-on-the-shoulder loners --the type evoked by Mark Feuerstein's Moe. The original Moe was played by Luther Adler. Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, today best known for their acting schools, played Bessie and Sam Feinschreiber.

TheBig Knife
Waiting for Lefty

Awake and Sing!
Written by Cliford Odets
Directed byElina de Santos

Cast: Myron Berger /John Rothman, Bessie Berger/ Marilyn Fox, Hennie Berger/ Shiva Rose, Jacob/David Marguiles, Ralph Berger/Josh Radnor, Schlosser /Thom Whaley, Moe Axelrod/ Mark Feuerstein, Uncle Morty/ Alan Blumenfeld, Sam Feinschreiber/ John Cirigliano
Set Design: Lawrence Miller
Costume Design: David Murin
Lighting Design: Ann G. Wrightson
Original Music and Sound Design: Scott Killlan
Dialect Coach: David Alan Stern
Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with 2 intermissions

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA, 413/298-5536, web site
7/10/01-7/28/01; opening 7/11/01

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 7/11 performance
Berkshire Hikes Book Cover

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