There have been countless Jewish plays written; some great, some mediocre. Very few, however, have been able to define the struggles of an entire time period while, at the same time, appealing to a universal audience. Zelda Fichandler, Founding Director of Arena Stage, achieves this goal with Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing" in her return to Arena Stage in over a decade.
Originally published by Odets in 1935, the play portrays the struggle of a Jewish family during the Great Depression in New York City to maintain the life they've grown accustomed to in the face of hardship. In addition to focusing on the historical aspects of the 1920s, the play also reflects a growing dichotomy between the "old world" values and traditions of immigrants an first-generation Americans, versus the "new world" values of the younger generation.
The play centralizes around the mother Bessie Berger (Jana Robbins), who despite the financial troubles of the family remains stalwart about maintaining a sense of pride and adherence to tradition. Acting as the emotional head of the household, Bessie maintains a sense of orderliness in her house and uses her "Jewish guilt," an infamous trait of the Jewish mother, to preserve the tradition and respect of the family. Her controlling nature leads her husband, Myron (Steve Routman) to be a very soft-spoken character. After years of marriage Myron now attempts to avoid all confrontation and obey the will of his over-bearing wife.
Myron's soft-spoken language often added some light-hearted comedy to an otherwise dramatic play when while in the heat of an argument between characters he would casually attempt to change the subject by interjecting the day's news. These comedic moments allowed for an atmosphere that was not overpowered with drama and tension and added another dimension to "Awake and Sing."
The play is set in The Berger's modest apartment and the set design masterfully captures the family's struggle to remain in a state of normalcy. Set Designer Andromache Chalfant beautifully captures the Victorian style of the 1920s and 1930s and the use of the bold red and blue colors not only creates contrast between the two rooms, but also symbolizes the divisions that frequently occur throughout the play.
This separation also stood as a testament to the excellent stage direction of Fichandler by creating scenarios where characters that were in quarrel with one another would often sit on the opposite side of the small apartment often divided by the curtain running down the middle of the set.
Ralph Berger (Adam Green), the young and ambitious son, supports the family with his meager job, but rapidly grows tired of his simple life and dreams of making something of himself. Ralph is influenced mostly by his grandfather Jacob (Robert Prosky), who grew up under a repressive regime in Russia, and whose Marxist views lead him to preach about how life "shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."
In an attempt to defy his mother and create a sense of independency for himself Ralph falls in love with a young gentile girl. When news of Ralph's relationship with a gentile girl reaches Bessie the audience can't help but hear the bellowing of "Tradition, Tradition!" in the back of the audience's minds in sheer "Fiddler On The Roof" fashion as she swiftly dismisses their love affair as childish, and in doing so only pushes her son farther away.
The character Jacob had the most profound performance and Prosky's acting was nothing less than awe-inspiring. In the play Jacob lives in a state of constant patronizing from Bessie. Prosky exquisitely reflects Jacob's desire to "have young blood pump through his arms" and captures the restless state of the character.
Having come from religious oppression, Jacob turns against the common view of the "American dream" and instead only sees a world where financial oppression has taken control of people's lives, delivering beautiful monologues speaking out against such oppression. Seeing the hope and determination in his grandson's eyes, he decides to leave his inheritance, nearly $3,000, to Ralph, hoping that he can escape their home and make a better life for himself.
Meanwhile, Hennie Berger (Miriam Silverman) the daughter reflects her mother's strong will and passion. However, her views on love completely contradict those of her mother, causing the two to be in a constant state of argument. Hennie is also engaged in an ongoing love-hate battle with Moe Axelrod (Adam Danheisser) a cynical and smooth-talking army vet who lost his leg in the war. Hennie is able to maintain her strong will until she is blind-sided by the news of her own pregnancy with an illegitimate and unnamed father. Forced into a loveless marriage to maintain her family's pride, Hennie becomes a reflection of her mother while living in her own personal hell where she despises her family and is forced to live a lie.
The similarities and differences between mother and daughter encourage tremendous dramatic tension between the two characters and is superbly captured by Silverman and Robbins with moving, emotional arguments throughout "Awake and Sing."
In her desperate attempt to maintain control over the family that is collapsing around her, Bessie is driven to the breaking point and begins to believe the lies she tells to maintain normalcy, creating a chimera where her daughter loves her husband from a forced marriage and her son enjoys his minimalist life. Over the course of the year the quarreling amongst the family worsens as they move closer and closer to the edge and complete fragmentation, with the younger Berger's threatening to turn their backs on their parents and make a better life for themselves.
The acting in the play is unquestionably phenomenal and the characters come to life before the audience's eyes and grow and develop in their short time on stage. This believability causes the audience to inevitably connect to the emotions portrayed by the entire cast. The simple yet eloquent language and dialogue used by the characters further strengthens this sense of realism. This dialogue that the play is comprised of also establishes a solid balance between light-hearted and comedic banter and powerfully dramatic and elevated speech.
Although the strong Jewish themes in "Awake and Sing" seem to have been repeated in countless plays before it, "Awake and Sing" hardly seems worn-out. Rather, it brings a fresh perspective to its historical time period, and despite a predictable plotline, keeps the audience captivated and emotionally involved in the drama on stage.
"Awake and Sing" is powerful and brilliantly reflects the struggles many faced during the Great Depression, while uncovering the frailties of the human spirit. This must-see is definitely worth singing about.
"Awake and Sing" is playing at Arena Stage through March 5, 2006. Tickets are on sale at www.arenastage.org.
Daniel Klein. Daniel Klein is a junior in the Communications Arts Program and excited for a great year on print staff. When not working on a story he enjoys playing for Blair's awe-inspiring, breathtaking and downright cool boys' lacrosse team (and encourages everyone to come see us … More »