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‘Awake and Sing!’ at Olney Theatre Center

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Clifford Odets’ 1935 turbulent drama Awake and Sing! is a stark portrayal of a dysfunctional Jewish family in the Bronx, New York City in the mid-1930s. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, there are occasional moments of humor, sweetness, and expressions of love. However, these moments are frequently overshadowed by gritty reality and verbal violence.

Olney Theatre Center’s production features powerful performances by a talented cast, under the direction of Serge Seiden. At times, the characters are talking at each other instead of to each other, in a soliloquy-like style. This device is very effective in highlighting the differences, resentments, and recriminations among the various family members.

Rick Foucheux (Jacob) and Alex Mandell (Ralph Berger). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Rick Foucheux (Jacob) and  Naomi Jacobson (Bessie). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jack McGraw’s scenic design portrays the grim, cramped quarters of a financially-strapped Depression-era family. With its mottled walls and mismatched furniture, it forms the family’s entire world and evokes the stultifying and dull sameness of their daily lives.

The play’s title is taken from the Bible—Isaiah 26:19—“Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust.” The story is an explosive character study of three generations of a family of Jewish immigrants struggling to make ends meet. The plot includes a  pregnancy, and a litany of conflicts and disappointments, but it also includes family love and romantic love and a striving for independence. In a larger sense, this family is a metaphor for the conflict between idealism and pragmatism and the natural human need for independence and a sense of purpose. Clifford Odets himself said, “Man is an heroic being if he can only break through to fulfilment … Nothing moves me so much as human aspirations blocked, nothing enrages me like waste. I am for use as opposed to abuse.”

At the center of Awake and Sing! is matriarch Bessie Berger, stunningly portrayed by Naomi Jacobson. Bessie is a sad, bitter middle-aged woman who feels she has been cheated out of having a comfortable life by marriage and children. Still, she loves her family and wants the best for them—but only on her own terms.

The ultra-talented Paul Morella beautifully portrays Bessie’s hard-luck, hen-pecked husband, Myron Berger. Myron is the epitome of an emasculated milquetoast, but he seems completely resigned and determined to make the best of it. In his words, “I realized I was meant to be a failure in life and I was.”

Rick Foucheux turns in a moving performance as Bessie’s father, Jacob, a creative hair stylist, a Marxist and an idealist who loses himself in the recordings of Enrico Caruso—especially those that express a yearning for paradise. Jacob firmly believes in his ideals, but he feels that he has not fulfilled his responsibility to proselytize. He says to his grandson, “This is why I tell you: Do!  Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution. But you should act. Not like me. A man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea.”

Perhaps the most striking character of all is Ralph Berger, Bessie’s emotionally complex 22-year-old son. Alex Mandell is brilliant in bringing this character to life—a young man who is sometimes brooding, sometimes defiant, sometimes conflicted, often disappointed, and ultimately triumphant. Ralph is seeking romantic love, while at the same time, he is searching for justice and independence for himself and for the world around him. Some of his wants and needs are simple, such as a pair of black and white shoes and having his teeth fixed. Others are loftier goals, such as enjoying the fruits of his labor and “a life that is not printed on dollar bills.” Ralph says to his mother, “I been working for years, bringing in money here—putting it in your hand like a kid. . . . Only just remember I pay some of the bills around here, just a few . . . and if my girl calls me on the phone, I’ll talk to her—any time I please.” In his personal declaration of independence, Ralph affirms, “I wanna make up my own mind about things … be something!

Chis Genebach (Moe Axelrod) and Laura C. Harris (Hennie Berger). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Chis Genebach (Moe Axelrod) and Laura C. Harris (Hennie Berger). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The other cast members turn in impressive performances, as well: Laura C. Harris as Hennie Berger (Bessie’s daughter) shines in the challenging role of a young woman with conflicting emotions constantly churning in her head–and in her heart. Chris Geneback (Moe Axelrod, Hennie’s love interest) skillfully portrays a wounded war veteran limping on a wooden leg and expressing his love through wise cracks instead of sweet nothings. The performance of Joshua Morgan (Sam, Hennie’s husband) rings true as a recent immigrant who speaks broken English and who craves the respect of his disdainful wife.  And, Richard Pelzman (Morty, Bessie’s brother) provides the perfect balance of a wealthy, arrogant, self-satisfied businessman and a loving and supportive brother.

Awake and Sing! is not so much a “feel-good” play, as it is a “feel-deeply” play. It is, at once, an historical drama, a political drama, and a family drama. With thick tension and emotional conflict, it tells the very human story of our need for a sense of belonging, but also a need for independence.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 25 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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Awake and Sing! plays through October 19, 2014 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online

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