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By Clifford Odets
Sponsored in part by:
The Lehman Family American Experience Series
JANUARY 21, 2010 - FEBRUARY 28, 2010
"One of the greatest of all American plays!" -The Wall Street Journal
In a cramped Bronx tenement during the Great Depression, a working-class Jewish family copes with financial hardship even as they dream of a brighter future. Matriarch Bessie Berger's fierce determination keeps her family afloat, whatever the cost. Gritty, passionate, funny and heartbreaking, Odets' 1935 masterpiece beautifully captures both the hopes and the struggles of an unforgettable American family.
This American classic features Northlight favorite Mike Nussbaum, and an outstanding ensemble of Chicago actors.
Join us for a FREE panel discussion, Clifford Odets' America: The American Dream Fulfilled. Read more>
Scroll down for:
- Costume Sketches
- An Interview with Director Amy Morton
- An Interview with Playwright Clifford Odets
- A Biography of Clifford Odets
- Remembrances of the Great Depression
Costume Designer Jacqueline Firkins will make the Bergers and their world come to life with period-inspired fabrics and designs.
See her early costume sketches here.>
Resident Dramaturg Meghan Beals McCarthy chats with director Amy Morton on Northlight's upcoming production of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!
Meghan Beals McCarthy: Odets is still a pretty popular playwright; what in particular makes Awake and Sing! important now?
Amy Morton: Well, there's the obvious, which is: we're in a major recession no matter what anybody says about "oh, we're done with the recession."
M: Yes. "We're recovered."
A: Yeah, "we're recovered; we're a lot better." So there's the obvious one and I think that's one hell of a good enough reason to do it. Also, the play is about how petty we are; we are reduced to pettiness because of poverty; what poverty does to people. Petty back then is very different then our petty right now.
I think that with all the ways in which we can communicate now - and the fact that so many of us (whether or not we know it) live our lives in public - it's become a meaner world. And what that's reduced us to in this economic crisis as opposed to that economic crisis? It feels like it was a smaller world back then in terms of your own personal world. Now we're in a recession and our world is much bigger, and what we're willing to do as a society to make a buck is a lot. Back then, I have a feeling we weren't asked to degrade ourselves as much.
But the biggest disservice poverty can do to human beings is make them "less than," and when people feel "less than," they can behave in really petty ways towards each other. In this family [the Bergers], it manifests itself in people lying to each other; mothers lying to their children, which is just fricking weird, man. People marrying the person they don't love for security... it's a terrible, terrible thing.
I also think there's something about Odets... as mean as these characters get, he loves them all and you can tell that in the writing. On the surface, Bessie can look kinda monstrous, but he makes her very understandable because of the situation they're all in. Continue>
It was Better That Way: An Interview with Clifford Odets (Fall 1961)
By Arthur Wagner
Arthur Wagner: How did you start writing plays?
Clifford Odets: As a kid I always wanted to be an actor and a writer. For a while I thought I would be a novelist, but then I became an actor and naturally my mind began to take the form of the play as a means of saying something. I wasn't sure I had anything to say, because some of the things I wrote were quite dismal. I began to think in terms of three acts and scenes within the acts. When I finally sat down to write seriously, I naturally found the play form. Whatever technique I have has been unconsciously absorbed-almost through my skin, with all the acting I've done. So there's a great deal of technique in Awake and Sing! but nothing consciously done. Anybody can teach the craft of playwriting. What cannot be taught, and what I was fortunate in being, was simply myself. I was able to bring my own problems and my own relationships to life.
AW: When did you start Awake and Sing!?
CO: Awake and Sing! was the first play I started. I wrote two acts, and maybe six months later I wrote the third act. I also rewrote the third act just before it went into production. The Group Theatre didn't want to do the play. I was very resentful and smarting. I stayed on with the Group Theatre as an actor, an actor who could never get a good part - this was my constant gripe. My impulse was to start the second play, which later became Paradise Lost. If they didn't think Awake and Sing! was good enough, I would try to write Awake and Sing! better - so I started another family play called Paradise Lost.
The Group Theatre should do my plays, I thought. There are no leading parts in my early plays. They're written for eight characters; six or seven of the characters are of equal importance. This is purely from the Group Theatre training, the Group Theatre ideal of a stage ensemble - this so fetched me and so took me over completely that this was how I wrote. It stands for my belief that all the parts are important, that all the actors are important, and also my sense that every actor should have a good part. It's funny how these little ego quirks, resentments and little torments become this whole kind of style.
Excerpted from the Lincoln Center Theatre Review, Spring 2006, Issue 42
Dear American Friend - A Biography of Clifford Odets
By Maggie Carlin, Dramaturgy Assistant
Great artistry and talent often emerge from those among us that have lived lives of sadness, setbacks, failure and heartache. Clifford Odets lived such a life. He was born from humble beginnings, growing into a man with extraordinary potential and coming to his end with so much more to give and not having the time to finish.
He was born in Philadelphia on July 18, 1906 to Lou and Pearl Odets. Lou was originally from Russia and changed his name from Gorodetsky to Odet when he arrived in America. (The ‘s' would be added later, due to a misspelling on his union card.) Pearl Geisinger entered the U.S. at age eight from Romania and by age eleven worked in a stockings factory. At sixteen she was forced into marriage with Lou, a situation that would forever plague her life. Several months later, she gave birth to Clifford.
When Odets was two years old, the family moved from Philadelphia to the Bronx in New York City. Lou had worked in print shops in Philadelphia and when they settled in their new home he opened a shop of his own. Later he moved into direct mail advertising. The Odets lived in an elevator building; one of only three in the Bronx.
In 1910, Pearl gave birth to another child, Genevieve, who within the first year of her life was crippled by polio. This caused a great change in Pearl: she became obsessively neat and kept everything spotless. Between her extensive tidiness and caring after her invalid daughter, her affection for her son began to fade. No one could recall her kissing her son after the age of four. Odets remembered, "She wanted to be consoled. So did I. She was lonely, distressed and aggrieved; so was I. As a child I expected to be petted, brought in, (not cast out), consoled and comforted; and she begrudgingly would do none of these things for me. She was, after all, a child herself." He added, "Any autumn will come, and dusk, and when I am one hundred and one, my heart will hurt that when the streets were cold and dark, that entering my house, my mother did not take me into her arms." Continue>
Revisiting the 1930s: My Remembrances of the Great Depression
By Martin T. Sosnoff, Forbes Magazine contributor, December 19, 2008
Our wallets were thin but our dreams were big and we worked our way up and out of the economic stew.
I was an East Bronx street kid in the late '30s. With a good peg from third base, I barely understood I was poor, what the economists label as "marginal."
The Great Depression crushed my mom and pop. They had a couple of college years under their belts but dropped out post-1929. Pop ran a tailor shop in Harlem on 128th Street and we lived on Sugar Hill, the classy section of Harlem in the '30s and '40s, mainly well kept brownstones.
After 1936, when FDR cut off the budget stimulus, the country relapsed into a deeper depression and we moved to the East Bronx, a family of five in a three-room walkup. Rent was 40 bucks, monthly. The odor of baked potatoes permeated the halls of the tenement.
I remember Pop buying 20-pound bags of Idaho potatoes from an Italian push cart peddler. We topped this starch with sour cream and that was supper, supplemented with day-old bread from Dugan's bakery (half-price) and a glass of milk, maybe a muffin.
A baloney sandwich was my lunch staple. My mother was a sometimes vegetarian but I pushed away her spinach and carrot salads. One of my chores was to subway down to Pop's store with a hot supper packed in a huge pot cheese canister. Pop would wolf down his borscht and kasha and I'd subway home.
My father would reach home after 8 p.m., exhausted from his 12-hour day. He'd pull out of his pocket a couple of crushed dollar bills and some quarters and dimes. Mother would cry when she saw how little she had to run the house. Then they would lapse into Yiddish and argue. I heard many niches that I understood as "nothing, nothing."
Find the entire article on Forbes.com>
CAST (in alphabetical order)
Audrey Francis (Hennie Berger)
Keith Gallagher (Ralph Berger)
Tim Gittings (Schlosser)
Cindy Gold (Bessie Berger)
Peter Kevoian (Myron Berger)
Loren Lazerine (Uncle Morty)
Mike Nussbaum (Jacob)
Demetrios Troy (Sam Feinschriber)
Jay Whittaker (Moe Axelrod)
Amy Morton (Director)
John Musial (Set Design)
Jacqueline Firkins (Costume Design)
Keith Parham (Lighting Design)
Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager)
Meghan Beals McCarthy (Production Dramaturg)
|Audrey Francis (Hennie Berger) is incredibly grateful to be making her Northlight debut with Awake and Sing!. Audrey recently appeared in Talking Pictures and The Actor at the Goodman Theatre. Other Chicago credits include: Another Part of the Forest, Othello (Writers' Theatre); Desire Under the Elms (The Hypocrites); Imagining Brad (Pine Box Theatre); Recent Tragic Events, The Violet Hour (Uma Productions); and a Jeff-nominated performance in The Credeaux Canvas (Circle Theatre). She has also worked at Victory Gardens, Noble Fool and Steppenwolf. Film and television credits include: Chicago Overcoat, Dustclouds, Donnie Brasco, Just Act Normal and ER. Audrey is the co-owner of Black Box Acting Studio, a new conservatory for actors. Thank you to Amy, Lea, the Bar Method and everyone at Black Box Acting Studio.
|Keith Gallagher (Ralph Berger) is thrilled to return to Northlight, where he appeared last season in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Chicago credits: Shining City (Goodman), Arcadia (Court), The Real Thing (Remy Bumppo), Tracks (TUTA Chicago - Viaduct and Chopin productions), and The Boxcar Children (Chicago Playworks). Regionally, he appeared in The Lieutenant of Inishmore with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. He attended The Theatre School at DePaul University and is a nationally certified EMT. Thanks to all for coming.
|Tim Gittings (Schlosser) is thrilled to be returning to Northlight Theatre. He was last seen as an understudy going on for two different roles in The Miser. Chicago credits include work with The Goodman Theatre, Writers' Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Stage Left, and Circle Theatre. Mr. Gittings' regional credits include two seasons with American Players Theatre; five seasons with Door Shakespeare; and The Winter's Tale, A Christmas Carol, Twelfth Night, All My Sons, and Coriolanus at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. He would like to thank his wife, Ellie, for her love and support.
|Cindy Gold (Bessie Berger) Recent work includes Twelfth Night at Notre Dame Shakespeare, directed by David H. Bell; Frank Galati's Arsenic and Old Lace; Moises Kaufman's workshop of 33 Variations with AboutFace/Tectonic Theatre; Frank Galati and Stephen Flaherty's new musical Loving Repeating (Jeff Award) with About Face/MCA; Northlight's Pride and Prejudice; Next Theatre's The Misanthrope; Victory Gardens' The Glamour House; and Desire Under the Elms co-produced by Court Theatre and Freedom Repertory in Philadelphia, PA. She has appeared with Madison Rep, Shakespeare Sedona, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Boston Shakespeare, Peninsula Players, and Mental Floss Improvisation, Miami. Dialect coaching includes the national tour of Saturday Night Fever; Regina and Robert Altman's A Wedding, both at Lyric Opera of Chicago; and A Skull in Connemara here at Northlight Theatre. Cindy is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Head of Acting at Northwestern University. She was seen on TNT's new show, Leverage, last fall.
|Peter Kevoian (Myron Berger) Recent Chicago credits include: The Christmas Schooner (TATC), Aladdin (Chicago Shakespeare), the title role of "Screwtape" in The Screwtape Letters (Mercury), The Wizard in Wicked (Broadway in Chicago), and Tateh in Ragtime under the direction of Frank Galati (Jeff nomination). Mr. Kevoian marked his Broadway debut in the revival of Zorba with Anthony Quinn. Other credits include Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar (National Tour Revival), The Phantom of the Opera (original Broadway cast), Sunset Boulevard (original Canadian cast), Cats and Les Miserables (Los Angeles company). TV credits include LA Law, All My Children, The Guardian, McMillan, Cheers, Matlock, Becker and E.R. Proud member of Actors Equity Association since 1973. For John and Jean...and the Kevoian family!
|Loren Lazerine (Uncle Morty) returns to the Chicago stage after 14 years on the west coast. Los Angeles theatre credits: All My Sons (Geffen Playhouse), Adam's Rib (LA Theatre Works), Killer Joe (Lost Angels Theatre Company - Winner of five LA Ovation Awards), and Heart of a Dog (Lillian Theatre), among others. Loren was the first mainstage cabbie in Famous Door's long-running Hellcab, with runs at Organic Theatre, Ivanhoe Theatre, two LA productions, Edinburgh Theatre Festival, and a tour of Israel. Chicago credits: Julius Caesar (Next), Holy Ghosts (Shattered Globe), Never Come Morning (Prop Theatre), Glengarry Glen Ross and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been (Big Game Theatre, directed by Anna D. Shapiro). Film: Fast and Furious 4, The Big Tease, Asylum, Boogie Nights. TV: Frasier, CSI, Pushing Daisies, Las Vegas, Gilmore Girls, among others. Upcoming: A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers' Theatre, directed by David Cromer. Thanks to Amy, BJ, Tracy and Nicole.
|Mike Nussbaum (Jacob) has appeared in or directed a long list of plays here at Northlight. Most recently he was seen on this stage in Better Late. Other appearances at Northlight include Grace, Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie, Hearts, Visiting Mr. Green, Quartermaine's Terms, Don Juan in Hell, Someone to Watch Over Me, The Old Neighborhood, and The Belmont Avenue Social Club. Recently he played Hamm in Beckett's Endgame and Donny in Mamet's American Buffalo at the American Theater Company, Shelley Levine in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross at Steppenwolf, and John of Gaunt in Shakespeare's Richard II at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He has appeared with the Grant Park Symphony and Chorus as the Narrator of Leonard Bernstein's Kaddish, and with the Steppenwolf production of Glengarry Glen Ross at the Dublin Theatre Festival. He will soon appear in Taming of the Shrew at Chicago Shakespeare.
|Demetrios Troy (Sam Feinschreiber) makes his Northlight Theatre debut. He holds a BA from DePaul University/Barat College and an MFA from the University of South Carolina. Credits include: Richard III, Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare); Julius Caesar (Utah Shakespearean Festival); Understudy for Aerial and Ferdinand in The Tempest (Steppenwolf); Edmund in King Lear, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Riverside Shakespeare); and Tartuffe and King Lear (Milwaukee Repertory Theater). Upcoming credits include The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre).
|Jay Whittaker (Moe Axelrod) makes his Northlight Theatre debut. In New York, Jay played Lloyd Wright in Frank's Home (Playwrights Horizons Theatre) and Richard Duke of Gloucester in Rose Rage (The Duke on 42nd St). Regionally, he played Kent in Edward II and Calipine in Tamburlaine the Great (The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington D.C.); Ian in Shining City (Huntington Theatre Company). Chicago credits include: The Wild Duck, The Glass Menagerie, Cyrano, Travesties, and The Romance Cycle (Court); Shining City and Frank's Home (Goodman); David Copperfield and Mother Courage and Her Children (Steppenwolf); A Number directed by BJ Jones (Next); Ghetto (Famous Door Theatre Company); Merchant of Venice, Loves Labours Lost, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, Rose Rage and All's Well That Ends Well (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), as well as both parts of Henry IV, which were performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. TV credits: Prison Break, Early Edition. Film: Let's Go To Prison, Death of a President, Dustclouds.
Amy Morton (Director) is a director, actor and member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company. At Steppenwolf she has directed: American Buffalo, Dublin Carol (also at Trinity Rep Theatre), The Pillowman, The Dresser, Topdog/Underdog (which traveled to the Alley Theatre and the Dallas Theatre Center), Glengarry Glen Ross (which traveled to both the Dublin and Toronto Theatre Festivals), We All Went Down to Amsterdam, The Weir, Mizlansky/Zalinski, and Love, Lies, Bleeding (which traveled to the Kennedy Center). She directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Alliance Theatre, and Our Country's Good at the Remains Theatre. Her most recent work as an actor was in the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County in Chicago, London and on Broadway, and for which she received a Tony nomination. Her latest film appearance is in Jason Reitman's Up In The Air.
John Musial (Set Design) makes his Northlight scenic debut with this production. Musial is a film & theatermaker who writes, directs, designs and makes stuff. As a Lookingglass Ensemble member he has designed lights, sets, costumes and films, earning Jeff recognition for The Jungle, West, Eurydice, Great Men of Science, 1984 and Algren... As a writer/director with Lookingglass, John created Our Future Metropolis, The Great Fire and Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day. In 2001 John re-directed and edited Algren as an hour-long television program for WTTW Channel 11 and was nominated for a regional Emmy. Apart from Lookingglass, he has directed and designed projects with Redmoon, Local Infinities and ¡NOROOM!. Musial holds a Master's degree in Architecture from UIC and is currently working toward his professional license.
Jacqueline Firkins (Costume Design) is pleased to return to Northlight after designing for last season's Grey Gardens. Other design work includes sets and/or costumes for the Hartford Stage, Dallas Theatre Center, Portland Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Court Theatre, Chicago Children's Theatre, Portland Stage Company, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Westport Playhouse, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare Festival of Tulane, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Brave New Repertory, About Face Theatre Company, and Yale School of Drama. Jacqueline is a faculty member at Loyola University of Chicago and is a Recipient of a 2001 Princess Grace Award.
Keith Parham (Lighting Design) Past Northlight productions include Po Boy Tango, Gee's Bend, and Bad Dates. He is a company member of TUTA Theatre, where recent credits include Maria's Field, Romeo and Juliet, and Uncle Vanya. Other credits include Homebody/Kabul (National Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia); Adding Machine: A Musical and Red Light Winter (off-Broadway); Gas for Less, Ghostwritten, and Joan Dark (Goodman); Carter's Way, Sunset Limited, Red Light Winter, and The Glass Menagerie (Steppenwolf); Dying City, 9 Parts of Desire and The Adding Machine (Next Theatre, Associate Artist); Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead, A Minister's Wife, and Nixon's Nixon (Writers' Theatre); Million Dollar Quartet (Dee Gee Theatricals at Goodman and The Apollo); Don't Dress For Dinner and Russian On The Side (Royal George). He has also designed for The Alley Theatre, Trinity Repertory, Milwaukee Shakespeare, Timeline Theatre (Associate Artist), Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, Chicago Opera Theatre, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, European Repertory Theatre, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and Theatre Wit, among others.
Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Design) is excited for his first venture with Northlight. He is a member of Strawdog Theatre Company (where he recently received an AfterDark Award for Original Score, Old Town and a Jeff Award for Original Incidental Music, A Lie of the Mind) and Serendipity Theatre. He is an Artistic Associate with Teatro Vista (Jeff Award for Sound Design, Blindmouth Singing) and Collaboraction (Orgie Award for Original Music, Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow). Other recent projects include The Cabinet, Last of My Species, Winter Pageant Redux (Jeff Award Nomination for Sound Design) and Once Upon a Time (Redmoon Theatre); The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Living Green (Victory Gardens); El Grito del Bronx, Another Part of the House (Teatro Vista), Frankenstein, Oedipus (The Hypocrites), Jon (Collaboraction); The Cherry Orchard, R.U.R. (Strawdog); Stupid Kids (AboutFace); Maria's Field, Romeo & Juliet and Uncle Vanya (TUTA); Fake Lake (Neofuturists); and various productions with Adventure Stage Chicago and Loyola University where he teaches Sound Design.
Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager) is delighted to be collaborating once again with the talented people at Northlight. Previous Northlight stage management credits include last season's The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Mauritius and Grey Gardens, as well as The Miser and Gee's Bend. Elsewhere, her recent credits include Footloose, The Christmas Schooner, Knute Rockne - All-American and many other productions at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN; the world premieres of Free Man of Color and Court-Martial at Fort Devens, among others, for Victory Gardens Theatre; Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and Into the Woods at Marriott Lincolnshire; and 18 productions for Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park. Rita has been the set designer at Harold Washington College since 2001 and is a member of the Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago. She is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and a proud member of Actors Equity. Special thanks to the amazing Northlight crew!
In a Bronx tenement during the Great Depression, a working-class Jewish family copes with financial hardship as they dream of a brighter future. Gritty, passionate, funny and heartbreaking, Odets' 1935 masterpiece captures the hopes and struggles of an unforgettable American family.
Promotional photos by GRIP Design; production photos by Timmy Samuel.
Photo GalleryClick on any image to start the slideshow
In a Bronx tenement during the Great Depression, a working-class Jewish family copes with financial hardship as they dream of a brighter future. Gritty, passionate, funny and heartbreaking, Odets' 1935 masterpiece captures the hopes and struggles of an unforgettable American family.
Memorable 'Awake and Sing' revival at Northlight:
This is no time to be sentimental
February 1, 2010
by Chris Jones
In the Great Depression, bankers enjoyed neither cushioning bonuses nor the kind ministrations of Ben Bernanke. And if they were too big to fail, they still failed. "Those big shots who lost all the coconuts?" observes the cynic Moe Axelrod in "Awake and Sing," Clifford Odets' 1935 sturm und drang classic. "Still jumping off the buildings like flies."
And in director Amy Morton's deliciously juicy revival at the Northlight Theatre, the splendidly snarky actor Jay Whittaker, a center-parted weasel with a mismatched jacket, accompanies that line with an impishly moving digit and a little whistle. There's graveyard humor but no glee. Back then, people were in it together.
To a point. The struggling Bronx family in this uber text of in-your-face American acting probably saw more of its neighbors out on the street than the average banker. Still, Odets did not paint a sentimental picture of the striving Berger family, rather a cautionary tale of what happens when the hungry start eating their own.
"Awake and Sing" begins at the family dinner table. Morton, an original star of "August: Osage County," knows a thing or two about staging mean-and-cacophonus mealtimes. And thus she strikes an incendiary match right at the beginning of this revival, raising the stakes away from mere melodramatic angst and toward the primal struggle for survival. Cindy Gold's Bessie Berger, the mainpulative matriarch of this tenement set, and the most obvously malevolent member of this extended family, starts swinging right from the top with such self-unaware force that you think she's going to take down the flimsy walls as well as her own children. And it propels the show forwards.
This was never a subtle play. And the narrative events therein - from pregnancy to betrayal to suicide to sudden self-actualization - happen with so little normalcy inbetween, the piece always plays best when the stakes are high enough that one crisis merely seems to will the next one into being.
That's mostly how it goes with this frenetically paced production. But Morton finds room for some humor and human quirks. The redoubtable Mike Nussbaum, who plays Jacob, the moral conscience of the piece, delivers his feeble admonitions with the kind of raw, existential fear from which this veteran actor now draws with such truth. Loren Lazerine's Uncle Morty is a rich portait of self-involvement. Audrey Francis' Hennie is sardonic and flustered. Peter Kevoian's Myron is aptly ineffectual. And you surely believe that Keith Gallagher's Ralph is the only member of this crew who has (as his grandfather hopes) "wings."
Nobody else can fly away, least of all Moe, whom the actor treats like a wounded beast, pacing around the apartment holding people accountable and causing trouble. It's a gutsy and memorable performance.
There is a stutter towards the end of this show, perhaps, when Bessie's emotionally flat confession leaves you colder than you expect, arguably leaving you with a picture not so much as the consequence of oppression and struggle (the typical Odets thesis) as dysfunctional human cruelty under pressure. And although John Musial's set is distinctive and Jacqueline Firkins' costumes unusually resonant, you don't get the usual sense of confined quarters making people blow their tops.
But if feels like Morton wasn't especially eager to embrace Socialism or let any of the Bergers off the hook, whatever the economic circumstances. You can see that in the thrilling last minutes of a production with killer bookends. And that's why this particular "Awake and Sing" has one's current attention. It suggests, rather revisionistly and audaciously, that you can't use economic circumstances to explain away selfishness. You can, at least, be decent to your family before you jump.
Read the review at ChicagoTribune.com>
Awake and Sing!' carries a wallop that still stings
Depression-era play by Odets could have been written today
February 2, 2010
by Hedy Weiss
You can learn a lot by watching a family seated around a dinner table. Just consider the opening scene in "Awake and Sing!," Clifford Odets' classic Depression-era play, now receiving a rapidfire, rage-fueled revival at Northlight Theatre.
Odets (whose drama feels so timely it might have been written yesterday), wastes no time introducing us to the volatile relationships in the Berger household, that embattled, frightened, dream-denied Jewish family that shares a crowded Bronx apartment. The play's opening dinner scene quickly devolves into something of an intramural athletic competition, with accusations and protestations flying fast and furiously, and every last nerve of the three generations gathered around torn to shreds. And because this production has been directed (and scraped clean of any hint of sentimentality) by Amy Morton -- who made herself heard so notably at the dinner table in "August: Osage County" -- the tumult feels close to civil war.
And indeed, the Bergers seem to embody all the tensions of the day with talk of capitalist fat cats turning their backs on jobless families faced with eviction, of a whole generation of young people starved for work and a hopeful future, of love held hostage to money and of veterans of one calamitous war, full of bitterness and rage, seeing another cataclysm fast approaching.
Of course there are the blistering human dynamics that go beyond politics. Matriarch Bessie Berger (Cindy Gold, who moves through the play like an armored tank) is something of a latter-day Mother Courage who damages the very children she tries to protect. She undercuts her son, Ralph (played warmly by Keith Gallagher), and tries to seal a sad future for her daughter, Hennie (an ideally taut Audrey Francis) by overseeing a loveless marriage to a hapless newcomer (Demetrios Troy). She also deals cruelly with her elderly father, Jacob (the miraculous Mike Nussbaum, 86, in an electrifying performance), commandeers her weak husband, Myron (Peter Kevoian) and fawns before her wealthy brother, Morty (a deftly smarmy Loren Lazerine). Only the crippled World War I vet, Moe Axelrod, played to bristling effect by a gaunt, razor-edged Jay Whittaker, can stand up to Bessie and win.
As for love, you find it here only in the affection between grandfather and grandson. As for redemption, none is accorded to Bessie, whose self-justifying speech is too little, too late. And as for the play's political and social arguments? Just look around at our own "paradise lost" and our hunger for optimism. "Awake and Sing!" is for now.
Read the review on ChicagoSunTimes.com>
Human in Hard Times
Clifford Odets's Depression classic gets a gripping treatment
February 4, 2010
By Zac Thompson
"All of the characters in Awake and Sing!," writes Clifford Odets in the play's stage directions, "share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions." Writing during the Great Depression, when conditions for many couldn't get much pettier, Odets puts money at the root of that struggle, showing how economic hardship can trump noble impulses like love and kindness-especially in America, where life is "printed on dollar bills" (a line Odets likes enough to use three times). The alternatives the playwright proposes can seem willfully naive now, as when he holds up the Soviet Union as a model society. But the vitality of his writing, his richly drawn characters and dynamic poetry, reveal Odets as an artist only masquerading as a propagandist.
Awake and Sing! is set in the small but tidy Bronx apartment of the Bergers, working-class Jews who seem to have become infected by the meanness of their surroundings. Most contaminated of all is the matriarch, Bessie. The necessity of keeping the family afloat and respectable in hard times has made her coarse, conniving, and capable of cruelty. Poverty and misfortune have varying effects on the others, but none of them escapes unblemished. Bessie's father, Jacob-whom almost everyone treats as a doddering old fool-is a lifelong Marxist who preaches revolution but has never taken any steps toward it. Ralph, his idealistic grandson and protege, feels trapped in a crummy job. Pregnant and single, Ralph's fatalistic sister, Hennie, allows Bessie to bully her into marrying a man she barely knows and convincing him he's the father. The boarder, Moe Axelrod, brims with bitter cynicism, having lost a leg in World War I.
It all sounds like grist for a dour protest novel-something flat and preachy, full of slogans and devoid of life. But that's precisely what Awake and Sing! isn't. As the title itself suggests, the play is both thrillingly alive and full of music, with a raw, wounded humanity that no leftist labor sermon could ever convey. You can hear it in the dialogue, an immigrant cacophony of Yiddish inflection and street slang, striking in its vigor and shot through with an evocative, aching lyricism. ("She's like French words," says Ralph of a girl he likes.) And you can see it in the characters themselves, whose failings-even Bessie's-are motivated by a messy tangle of fear, pride, and misguided love. Odets has an almost Chekhovian fondness for even minor figures, from Hennie's duped, bewildered spouse to Bessie's sweet, childish husband Myron.
Amy Morton's gripping production for Northlight Theatre conveys the script's energy by adopting a combative spirit and the momentum of a speeding freight train. In group scenes the cast deliver their lines in quick, sometimes overlapping succession, creating a dizzying torrent of words and the exciting possibility of chaos. Maybe it was all the time she spent as one of the warring Westons in Tracy Letts's August: Osage County, but as a director Morton proves particularly adept at orchestrating a family argument-its crescendoes, repeated motifs, and arias of accusation and self-pity.
But she doesn't let her high-velocity squabbling diminish Odets's characters. The detailed ensemble work she gets from her nine actors keeps the verbal pyrotechnics from descending into incoherent babble. Cindy Gold (who, full disclosure, was a professor of mine at Northwestern) tempers Bessie's animal ferocity with a surprising naivete and a hurt look, suggesting that she's less a predator than a wounded creature who abides by the law of the jungle without fully believing in it. Jay Whittaker imbues Moe Axelrod's bitterness with desperation and vulnerability. And Mike Nussbaum brings pathos and gentle grace to the role of Jacob, the sentimental ideologue who lacks the capacity to transform his beliefs into action.
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Theater Review: Awake and Sing!
Time Out Chicago
February 4-10, 2010
By Kris Vire
"No law says we should be stuck together like Siamese twins!" declares Bessie Berger (Cindy Gold), the bulldog matriarch of a large Jewish family crammed in a Bronx tenement at the height of the Great Depression. Yet her actions speak otherwise: Every move Bessie makes regarding her willful daughter Hennie (Audrey Francis) and her frustrated son Ralph (Keith Gallagher) keeps them close by stomping on their individual hopes and dreams. The only aspirations allowed in this household will be for the family.
Odets's 1935 play indicted the American obsession with material success. In the playwright's view, Bessie's insistence on setting up Hennie in a loveless marriage and her machinations to end Ralph's courtship of an orphaned girl are the coldly pragmatic ends of an oppressive economic system. Bessie's idealist, anti-capitalist father (Mike Nussbaum) is rudely dismissed by his children but makes a lasting impression on his beloved grandson.
Awake and Sing! was written for Odets's Group Theatre ensemble but could just as easily have been meant for Morton's. The director and her ideal cast capture the claustrophobia of the Berger household (well served by John Musial's cramped period set) while imbuing Odets's lightly sketched characters with deepening color. They're also expert at mining the humor layered in with the dour; this production makes a strong case that Odets's influences included both Marx and Chekhov in equal measures.
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