Saturday, April 23, 2011

AWAKE AND SING! • New Jewish Theatre

This Clifford Odets play debuted in NYC at the Belasco Theatre in 1935.  To me, it's a little "slice of life" kind of action, where you're dropped into the world of this lower-middle-class Depression-era Jewish family, and you get to be a fly on the wall of their lives over the course of a year or so.

Welcome to the Bronx and the Berger family.  In the 1930's, America didn't seem to live up to its reputation of being the land of opportunity.  For this family, it's a land where making ends meet is a daily struggle.  Their cramped tenement apartment houses three generations.  First there's the matriarch, Bessie (Elizabeth Townsend), a domineering selfish mother who manipulates the lives of everyone in the place, willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a future for the family, regardless of the cost to her children's aspirations.  Her submissive husband Myron (Gary Wayne Barker) is content to do what his wife wants, enduring her insults and is frankly hilarious in delivering his timid lines.  Hilarious, but kind of sad too.  There's also their children Hennie (Julie Layton), whose hopes for a better life are dashed with an unwanted pregnancy, and Ralph (Aaron Orion Baker), desperately trying to escape his family's economic misfortunes, hanging his hopes on a girl he's completely smitten with.  To him, she's "like French words."  Grandpa Jacob (Bobby Miller), a Marxist and retired barber also lives in the apartment, and urges his grandson to aspire to be something.  To fight, so "life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.”  The Bergers have also taken in a boarder, Moe Axelrod (Jason Cannon), a cynical veteran who lost his leg in WWI.  He's got a little thing for Hennie, but you'd never know it given his incredibly misogynistic tendencies.  His antagonistic relationship with Hennie is fun to watch.  At one point, Hennie tells Moe, "For two cents, I'd spit in your eye!"  There's also Bessie's successful but swarmy brother Morty (Jerry Vogel) who drops by every now and then, and Hennie's eventual immigrant husband Sam (Jordan Reinwald).  Over the course of this play, we're witness to how the hard times have effected this family and how they each, in their own way, battle for a better life -- by hook or by crook.

Aaron Orion Baker (Ralph), Julie Layton (Hennie),
Bobby Miller (Jacob), Gary Wayne Barker (Myron)
and Elizabeth Townsend (Bessie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Under the excellent direction of Steve Woolf, I was completely transported into the world of the Bergers.  From what I've read, this is a quintessential Odet's play.  With his reputation for capturing the vernacular of his subjects, the success of his plays seems to rely more than partially on the transport of his words.  The dialogue is a kind of rhythmic prose, dependent on the timed delivery of each actor -- kind of like handing the baton to the next runner.  Well, the night I saw it, nobody dropped.  The performances were top-notch all the way around.  Townsend's portrayal of the mother grew stronger as the play progressed, and Barker drew my sympathy as her sheepish husband.  Vogel was a slick Morty, and Cannon not only defines the meaning of the word swagger, but also shows you real passion and heart, especially in the plays last moments.  Miller was compelling and rock solid as Grandpa Jacob, and Baker was convincing as Ralph, along with Layton as Hennie.  Reinwald also makes an impression as Sam later in the play.  The costumes (Garth Dunbar), set (Scott C. Neale), lighting (Hans Frederickson) sound (Noah Thomas) and the efforts of dialect coach Julie Foh, all seamlessly come together to present an authentic atmosphere, and in the intimate space of the Wool Studio Theatre, you really feel like you're in the Berger's living room.  Love that…  It's a great night of escape.  If you don't make room for this show in your theatre calendar, you're meshuga.  (I had to fit a Yiddish word in here somewhere…)

Jason Cannon (Moe), Jerry Vogel (Morty),
and Bobby Miller (Jacob).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Written by Clifford Odets
Directed by Steve Woolf
Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio, 2 Millstone Campus Drive Creve Coeur
through May 8 | tickets: $32 - $36
Performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and May 1 at 2 & 7:30pm

Bobby Miller* (Jacob), Elizabeth Townsend* (Bessie), Gary Wayne Barker* (Myron), Julie Layton (Hennie), Aaron Orion Baker (Ralph), Jason Cannon* (Moe), Jerry Vogel* (Morty), Jordan Reinwald (Sam) and Terry Meddows (Schlosser).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Scenic design by Scott C. Neale; lighting design by Hans Frederickson; costume design by Garth Dunbar; sound design by Noah Thomas; dialect coach, Julie Foh; dramaturg, Andrea Braun; props, Wendy Greenwood & Lauren Kissell; stage manager, Champe Leary*

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