"Awake and Sing" opens eyes

Feb. 3, 2006, midnight | By Emma Zachurski | 18 years ago

Arena Stage's latest production compels

New York City, the Great Depression: people are out on the street, money is impossible to come by and everyone is struggling to make ends meet. This grim setting is the embodiment of Clifford Odets's surprisingly life-affirming classic "Awake and Sing." Though the play's cast of characters, a down-on-their-luck Jewish family, face the same hardships of everyone else in their crashing city, their story is one of perseverance and will—a story which D.C.'s Arena Stage captures masterfully in their new production.

Headed by the strong lead of Arena Stage's founding director, Zelda Fichandler, and a flawless cast, "Awake and Sing" comes alive right on stage. Fichandler and her cast take Odets's demanding piece in their hands and do it great justice with their impressive interpretation.

The play centers on the everyday lives of the Berger family. Within this family is a profusion of character conflict, personal dreams and conflicting aspirations. The domineering Bessie (Jana Robbins) rules over her ductile husband Myron (Steve Routman) like an iron fist; their headstrong 20-something-year-old son Ralph (Adam Green) dreams of raising enough money to start a life of his own with his secret sweetheart; and grandpa Jacob (Robert Prosky) simply wishes for somebody to lend an ear to him. Meanwhile, the other 20-something-year-old Berger, Hennie (Miriam Silverman), is struggling with an unwanted pregnancy.

As the family tries to handle all these problems, in addition to the financial stress of the Great Depression, complications only get worse. Bessie especially plays a big role in complicating things. She marries off Hennie to Sam Feinschreiber (Richard Canzano), a mild-mannered foreigner, so that she will not have to face the embarrassment of her daughter having a child out of wedlock. She goes on to ban Ralph from leaving the house to see his girlfriend.

Tensions rise, voices are raised and tears are shed. Through it all, though, the play's cast is completely believable in their roles. They go beyond simply acting and become their character. Robbins is the authoritative tyrant; Routman is the kindred soul; Prosky is the wise voice from another generation; Silverman is the sharp-witted spirit; and Green is the dynamic idealist. Each character commits acts of kindness and cruelty, they have flaws and draws, they are undeniably human.

Of all the production's remarkable performances, though, Prosky's is the finest. His portrayal is both comical and heartrending; his character is a story unto itself. Prosky emphasizes both the loneliness and helplessness that has settled into Jacob's life without being melodramatic. He brings immeasurable depth to Jacob's persona.

While the acting in "Awake and Sing" is certainly phenomenal, it by no means outdoes Odets's writing. Odets achieved the rare feat of creating something both dramatic and life-affirming—the characters' plights are moving and the faith they have in their dreams is inspiring. Additionally, Odets made the wise choice of integrating a fair share of comic relief to offset some of the piece's more bleak moments. Frequently in the family's constant chatter, quick quips slip in here and there, whether it's the crackpot humor of Myron or a snide remark by Moe Axelrod (Adam Dannheisser)—a close family friend of the Bergers who is lusting after Hennie.

The backdrop to this spellbinding production is a simple, but effective, set. In reconstructing the time setting, an apartment set is furnished with the antique and archaic; the Bergers' home is set to transport the audience into a whole other era. More notably, the apartment is divided in half to give the allusion of two separate rooms. In the two divided sections—one side in a shade of red, the other in green—the actors often carry on two different scenes; in one room a group can be seated around the table laughing in content while in the other room a personal tragedy puts one character in violent tears.

Like the Great Depression, "Awake and Sing" is a tale of struggle and cumbersome obstacles. The Berger family, in their triumphs and collapses, shares a story that is incredibly moving, gripping and, above all, real.

"Awake and Sing" runs about 150 minutes long with one 15 minute intermission. It is being performed at the Arena Stage through Mar. 5.

Emma Zachurski. Emma has lead a bohemian lifestyle ever since her birth to an eccentric pair of a journalist and an artist. She is now currently a senior and looks forward to another great year with Silver Chips Online! Her spare time is best spent listening to … More »

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