By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At Northlight Theatre
Classic Depression Era drama still resonates today
“If this life leads to a revolution, it’s a good life.” – Jacob in Awake and Sing
Awake and Sing, Clifford Odets (1906-63) 1935 drama has emerged as a classic drama of a Bronx Jewish-American family caught in the economic struggle during the low point of the Depression. Living in a cramped fifth floor tenement apartment, the Berger family struggles to survive as a family unit. Northlight Theatre’s production is first-class in every respect.
Odets, known for poetic, metaphor-laden street talk style and often (as he does here) dropping his audience right into an emotional conflict point with little or no set-up. Odets presents fully developed characters including Bessie Berger (Cindy Gold in a riveting strong performance) whose fierce determination to keep her family afloat according to her plan. This slice-of-life drama aptly depicts the middle class’ trap from stifling economic conditions that fostered a sense of hopelessness in many.
We see Myron Berger (Peter Kevioian) as wimpy defeated man totally subservient to his dominating wife Bessie. Hennie Berger is the 25 year old unmarried daughter being nagged into marriage especially when she announces that she is pregnant. Ralph Berger is the 22 year old son with dreams of making his way into the American Dream. His optimism is encouraged by his communist grandfather Jacob (Mike Nussbaum). Ralph now has a girlfriend but his mother, in need to control everyone in the family, tries to sabotage the affair.
The family boarder, Moe Axelrod (the fabulous Jay Whittaker in his return to Chicago) is the injured cynical realistic who pines for Hennie and supports Ralph’s desire to make it on his own. This is high family drama, tightly directed by Amy Morton and superbly acted by a terrific assortment of “A” list Chicago players.
Clifford Odets sprinkles Awake and Sing with his socialist/communist anti-capitalist rhetoric especially in Jacobs speeches. Odets’ faith in the determination of youth is embodied in Hennie as she is determined to have love in her life and in Ralph’s fiery determination to “fix it so life won’t be printed on dollar bills.”
Odets gave a voice to the dispossessed in the 1930’s and Morton’s remount of Awake and Sing demonstrates the shot of perseverance the Bessie, Ralph and Moe each possess. The honesty of this cast gives a humanity to Odets characters. I especially admired the intense work from Cindy Gold, Jay Whittaker, Mike Nussbaum and Keith Gallagher as the Bergers. They did justice to Clifford Odets’ marvelous script.
At Northlight Theatre, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd, Skokie, IL, call 847-673-6300, www.northlight.org , $35 – $50, Tuesdays at 7:30 pm, Wednesdays at 1 & 7:30 pm, Thursdays at 7;30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8 pm, Sundays at 2:30 & 7 pm, running time is 2 hours with intermission.