Awake and Sing!
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Review of Awake and Sing!
TimeLine makes Odets 'Sing' - Highly Recommended
reviewed by Hedy Weiss
Chicago Sun Times
War looms across the ocean, anti-Semitism is on the
rise, capitalism is corrupt, the American economy is
shaken to its roots, immigrants are uneasy and the family
unit is in upheaval. No, this isn't a rundown of contemporary
headlines, but a concise summary of the themes that
run through the plays of Clifford Odets, one of the
hottest playwrights of the 1930s, and a man whose work
now speaks loudly to contemporary audiences.
Chicago theater companies seem to
have a particular flair for Odets' work, perhaps because
they were originally written for New York's fabled Group
Theatre, whose close-knit, close-to-the-bone way of
working was a model for this city's Off-Loop ensembles.
Whatever the reason, with director Louis Contey's riveting,
emotionally explosive revival of Odets' 1935 classic
"Awake and Sing" now at TimeLine Theatre,
and a beautifully acted revival of his 1938 drama "Rocket
to the Moon" running through Dec. 15 at Glencoe's
Writers' Theatre, something of an unofficial Odets festival
is in progress at the moment.
At TimeLine, you know something special
is cooking from the moment the lights dim. In a brilliant
solution to the problem that confronts every director—making
the first few minutes of a play seem a continuation
of life rather than an artificial entrance into a fictional
world—Contey sacrifices a bit of clarity for atmosphere,
and his gamble pays off. At first, all you hear is snatches
of an agitated dinner conversation in the Berger family's
Bronx apartment as they sit around a table in the recessed
dining room of Noelle C.K. Hathaway's marvelously realistic
timeworn set. You can pick out bits of the conversation—about
money and dreams and the latest news. And you sense
the heat that will soon be a full burn.
Like a filmmaker moving from long
shot to closeup, Contey then draws the action downstage,
making you feel you are a visitor in the apartment,
where three generations of a Jewish-American family
live in anxious proximity and economic uneasiness.
Bessie Berger (a wonderfully relentless
Isabel Liss) is the domineering, manipulative, anything-for-survival
matriarch who runs the household with an iron hand,
and whose husband, Myron (White Spurgeon), is a sweet
but weak man at peace with his failures.
Their grown children are restless
and thwarted. Hennie Berger (a star turn by the lustrous
Beth Lacke) is an unhappy beauty aching for a more glamorous
life and unable to hide the fact that she is pregnant,
and that her lover simply disappeared. Taunting her
from the sidelines is Moe Axelrod (the hugely charismatic
David Parkes, a true chameleon of an actor, at his demonic
best here). An embittered but dangerously appealing
World War I veteran and racketeer who is the family
boarder, he is engaged in a strange love-hate relationship
with Hennie that only intensifies after she marries
Sam Feinschreiber (fine work by Scott Aiello), a poor,
adoring new immigrant.
As for the boyish Ralph (Jesse Weaver,
who makes his character a real mensch), he is thwarted
from pursuing his first big love due to a lack of money
and privacy. Only his beloved grandfather Jacob (Rich
Baker, in a terrific performance with Old Testament
overtones) takes him seriously, goading him on to a
bold life and revolutionary acts out of a homemade blend
of idealism and socialist fervor, and out of disgust
for the rampant excesses of Bessie and his son Morty
(a wonderfully odious Brian McCartney), a garment district
Odets weds the tensions between expectations
and grim reality, despair and hope, passion and repression
to a sense of the disintegration of moral values in
a dog-eats-dog society. The insecurities and fears of
first-generation Americans feed the play; so does the
plight of recent immigrants like Schlosser (Richard
Wehbe), the Bergers' janitor.
Contey, whose productions for Shattered
Globe Theatre have long galvanized audiences, has assembled
a TimeLine cast in which the ensemble work is as exceptional
as the individual performances.
Nicole Rene Burchfield's period costumes,
Charles Cooper's air-shaft-like lighting and Andrew
Hansen's sound are excellent. So is a handsome lobby
display that provides rich insights into Odets and the
times that shaped him.
TimeLine will stage two more plays
from the 1930s this season—a revival of John Logan's
"Hauptmann" and the world premiere of Kate
Fodor's "Hannah and Martin," about the philosophers
Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidigger. This is a must-see