Awake and Sing!
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Review of Awake & Sing!
reviewed by Joe Stead
Critical Evaluation: * * * *
out of * * * *
With two brilliant productions of
"The Time of Your Life" and "Awake and
Sing!" currently on the Chicago boards, local theatre-goers
can take an enlightening look back in time to an era
of ethical, political and economic upheaval that shows
stunning parallels to our own times. Both William Saroyan
and Clifford Odets rose to fame during the 1930s through
the volatile and politically progressive work of the
infamous Group Theatre. Both avowedly left-wing anti-commerce,
pro-humanist playwrights, they championed an impassioned
if idealized notion of human nature that still rings
true and powerful many decades after their plays first
graced the stage.
Steppenwolf’s production of
Saroyan’s "The Time of Your Life" plays
out this socialist agenda on a grand scale, but no less
moving or thrilling is TimeLine Theatre Company’s
stirring and intimate revival of Odets’ "Awake
and Sing!" From the first glance of Noelle C.K.
Hathaway’s period-perfect set design, we know
we are in the presence of greatness.
TimeLine may not have the biggest
stage in town, but its productions are typically flawlessly
mounted and this one is no exception. From the vintage
props and furniture down to the authentic cracks in
the plaster, Hathaway’s spectacular design creates
an environment that is at once humble and homey. It
is a credit to Director Louis Contey for assembling
a cast who can hold their own with the set design.
Set in a crowded Bronx walk-up apartment
in 1935, the play introduces us to the Berger family,
immigrant Jews fighting for a better life amidst poverty,
clashing values and ideas of what constitutes success.
Myron Berger is the head of the household in name only
since his only function seems to be placing the occasional
race track bet and taking orders from his sharp-tongued,
domineering wife Bessie. Bessie is the personification
of an old school Jewish mother. Women’s places,
she believes, are in the home raising families, a man’s
responsibility is to be rich and successful, and traditional
values are the only way to achieve respectability, period.
"We don’t want life to
be printed on dollar bills," her 21-year-old son
Ralph declares. Ralph is working a menial factory job
that has just been downsized and left him with a paltry
income, hardly prime marriage material for the girl
he loves. Ralph’s fiery old communist grandfather
Jacob believes that a woman insults a man like nothing
else, and has talked great ideas for 70 years but only
in his head. Jacob hopes that Ralph will take up the
revolutionary cause, imploring him that life is still
full of golden opportunities.
Ralph’s sister Hennie is also
facing difficult choices. Hennie is pregnant and unable
to find the father of her child. A quick marriage must
be arranged, but she finds herself torn between a meek
Jewish shopkeeper and a hard-boiled childhood friend.
The choices that the young people must make speak volumes
about their character and integrity.
TimeLine’s pungent, even-handed production features
a flawless, intelligent cast. Rich Baker is superb as
the blustery old patriarch Jacob, movingly passing the
torch to the young and idealistic Ralph (portrayed with
appealing conviction by Jesse Weaver). It would be easy
to play Bessie as a stereotypical shrew, but Isabel
Liss gives her some real dimensions and backbone. Brian
McCartney’s jovial, big-pocketed Uncle Morty offers
some fine lighthearted contrast as the successful manufacturer
reminding his poor relatives that it is a rich man’s
money that puts a roof over their heads.
The entire ensemble (including Whit
Spurgeon, Beth Lacke, Richard Wehbe, David Parkes and
Scott Aiello) take their opportunities to shine. "Awake
and Sing!" is another astonishing piece of theatre
by a company perfectly in tune with their mission of
presenting outstanding historically-based plays.