Kitchen-table dramas were once the bread and butter of American theater. Clifford Odets, the Philadelphia-born, Jewish American playwright, was one of the form’s progenitors and with his socially incendiary 1938 Awake and Sing! he shocked playgoers and critics out of complacency. When it premiered on Broadway, the play ran for a respectable 184 performances. And, it seems at least in this region, every generation a theater company takes up the mantle of Odets again. While his stuff could be heaped on the dustbin of period pieces of the 1930s, there’s something elemental and raw that makes Odets’ work come alive again and again. Partly it’s his astute ear for the cadences and poetry of the streets of the 1930s Bronx, where this play is set. This month an invigorating production, directed by Studio Theatre’s Serge Seiden at Olney Theatre Center’s main stage, is resuscitating what many think of as a dated, post-Depression, pre-World War II era script.
The play revolves around the poor, hard-working Berger clan: patriarch Jacob, a Russian emigre who dreams of utopian societies; his daughter and the iron-fisted head of the household, Bessie; her emasculated husband Myron; and their two adult children: Hennie, a 26-year-old fading beauty who dreams of the high-society life, and Ralph, who has acquired some of his grandfather’s utopian ideals but wants to put them to modern use. On hand also are Bessie’s brother, Morty, who, as a clothing factory owner represents the “boss man”; Moe, a hot-blooded boarder who carries a chip on his shoulder from the hard knocks life has dealt him; and Sam, Hennie’s recently off-the-boat Russian suitor.
Odets was a member of the famed and influential Group Theatre, a New York-based ensemble of actors, directors, writers and artists who espoused stage work that was realistic and naturalistic. They drew from the early 20th-century Stanislavski system of acting created and popularized in Moscow by Konstantin Stanislavski. Actor Lee Strasberg brought Stanislavski to the United States and developed The Method, a well-regarded system of training actors. This is the technique that through its mid-20th-century New York school begat a cadre of mainstream Hollywood stars including James Dean, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris and Andy Griffith.
Among the Group’s principals, were Stella Adler, who played Bessie in Awake and Sing!’s premiere and later went on to found her own Stella Adler Studio of Acting, where students included Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Elaine Stritch and Warren Beatty.
This illustrious thread of acting history is beautifully reflected in Seiden’s Olney production. This Awake and Sing! sings most sweetly and rivetingly because of the impeccable nine-member cast. It’s easy to stereotype mid-20th-century American drama, but Odets provided so much detail in stage directions and character development that Seiden and his cast have made these men and women live and breathe anew with a fervor and focused intent that shakes the dust off the old-fashioned problems and makes them again, or still, relevant.
Alex Mandell’s Ralph comes across initially as a bit of a whiner, but it soon becomes clear from the family dynamics that he has much to rail against in making his own place in the world that hasn’t given him any breaks. He grasps at the chance with a growing intensity that ultimately lends an inkling of hope to this downtrodden family. It’s a notable transformation in light of Paul Morella’s milquetoast father, Myron. Morella recedes into the shadows, at one point wearing an apron and carrying a roasted duck. He has lost his masculinity and nearly cowers both at Bessie, his wife’s overbearing ways, and his children’s insurmountable problems. As Hennie, the adult daughter, Laura Harris, is a slim, lipsticked beauty – the nickname her father calls her — but she carries within a burning passion for something more than this tight-knit family can provide. Harris and Chris Genebach, who is Moe the boarder, sizzle early on, their quick glances build to a simmer then a boiling point. And Seiden manages to keep them connected even at a distance, adding to the sexual tension. By late in the 2 ½ hour evening, when the duo finally have it out, it’s hard to recall a hotter, more fiery and passionate moment (with no clothing removed) on a D.C. area stage in recent years, thanks both to the astute acting and to Odets’ unbridled street vernacular.
Naomi Jacobson, who has played her share of Jewish mothers in the region over the years, as Bessie is the Ur Jewish mother: demanding, emasculating, suffocating, controlling, even frightening in what she believes about her pure dedication to her family. She is the reporter, continually recounting another eviction on the next block of her Bronx neighborhood, to note that it’s not so bad with her family. Jacobson here purses her lips, tenses her cheeks in a smile that fades to a grimace. She’s hardened herself in order to become the Jewish mother you hope you’ll never have. It’s clear that Odets found no comfort in crafting warm, nurturing female characters. His women here use their power, and in Hennie’s case her feminine beauty, to control or captivate or emasculate men. It’s not a pretty portrait, but it works in the scheme of the conflicts the Berger family face.
The one disappointment in this strong cast is Rick Foucheux as faded patriarch Jacob. For Odets, Jacob represents the prophetic voice of the play, yet Foucheux, who has played his share of Jewish men – including Tevye at Olney a few years back – was disappointingly bland, and the least Jewish-seeming of the excellent ensemble cast. A Russian emigre who has immersed himself in Marxist and Utopian philosophies, Jacob tells his grandson, Ralph, “Wake up! Be something. Make your life something good.” He quotes biblical passages – thus the title, Awake and Sing! from the prophet Isaiah’s exhortation: “Awake and sing, ye who dwell in the dust.” Yet, as Foucheux shuffles around the Berger apartment, a wonderful period design by Jacob Magaw, it would be hard to peg him as a Marxist Jewish grandfather, if not for his connection to the Berger clan. His Jewishness is a cipher.
Every theatrical generation seems to need to return to Odets. Arena Stage’s founding artistic co-director directed a vigorous production here in 2006, while Theater J tackled Odets’ equally incendiary Waiting for Lefty back in 1998.
But, once again, it’s time for Odets’ prophecy to raise its voice, his call to upend complacency, extinguish capitalism, override materialism and seek something greater is a clarion call for any and every generation. Seiden’s revival, while hewing closely to Odets’ original message, finds its voice most compellingly by returning to the muscular drama inherent in these street-wise characters. The ensemble acting, helmed by Mandell, Harris, Genebach and Jacobson, is reason enough not to miss this production. Odets’ vision and street poetry again shine.
Awake and Sing! is onstage at the Olney Theatre Center through Oct. 19. Tickets, at $48-$65, are available by calling 301-924-3400 or visiting olneytheatre.org.