Left to Right Len Lesser and Adam Silver
Photo by Craig Schwartz
Photo by Craig Schwartz
AWAKE AND SING, the second offering in repertory at Glendale's A Noise Within hits a solid triple with Clifford Odets’ ode to family and the struggle for individuality. Familiar company members round out the cast with Bronx accents and excellent period costumes by Julie Keen. Michael C. Smith’s set is rich and nicely warmed with James P. Taylor’s lighting.
It’s 1935. The Berger family is presided over by no-nonsense and manipulative matriarch Bessie (dynamic Deborah Strang) whose strength and power steam roll over her long suffering husband, Myron, (a bit too wimpy Joel Swetow), daughter Hennie (dynamic Molly Leland) and young son, Ralph, (thoughtfully played by Adam Silver).
Grandfather and lover of opera Jacob (an excellent Len Lesser) rounds out the immediate family. Times are tough. Ralph (probably Odets, who was only 29 when he wrote the play) longs for his freedom and to be in love. He describes his lady love as being “like French words.” Unfortunately, the girl of his dreams is an orphan with no immediate family. This makes her unacceptable to Bessie who torpedoes Ralph’s attempts to successfully have a relationship.
Fine writing draws us into the tense Berger dynamic as the pot is stirred by the boarder, Moe Axelrod (appropriately rough around the edges Daniel Reichert). Moe’s got a wooden leg (actually three: the government gives ‘em away) because of a wound he suffered on the day before the Armistice of WWI. Moe is sweet on Hennie, but Hennie has problems of her own that Odets reveals in obliquely couched terms that stir Myron to tears and Bessie is driven to just find Hennie a husband, pronto. Not Moe!
The heart of the family, Jacob, may be aging, but his belief in Karl Marx and the equality of all men blossoms in his love for his grandson, Ralph. He dishes out advice and encourages Ralph to become the man he wants to be. “Awake and Sing, ye that dwell in dust!” He promises Ralph a windfall when he dies.
Uncle Morty (spot on Alan Blumenfeld) is a successful businessman and loves to flaunt his wealth. Capitalism versus the heart of society taking care of its own rears its head between Morty and Jacob, with Jacob retaining the better part of valor.
Bronx accents which started out a bit difficult to handle, eased up as the play moved along. Bessie has gotten Hennie married to a nice Jewish boy, Sam (bigger than life David Lengel) who is diligent as the new baby’s dad, not realizing that even though the kid may look like him, the baby came with the bride.
Tough decisions come at the climax with important decisions by Hennie and Jacob, and Ralph's emancipation into the world.
Odets was a member of The Group Theatre founded by Harold Clurman and a band of socially active New York actors, including Stella Adler in the ‘30s. Clurman encouraged Odets to write and the poetry of the young actor’s life emerges beautifully in his brusk and poetic1930s voice. Robust performances make this second production of the company’s three production season another impressive installment for lovers of Classical Theatre. Apt yet never heavy handed direction by Andrew J. Traisters keeps his cast moving apace. Had the entire company taken a note from Len Lesser’s hint of the Bronx, perhaps the business of their accents might have been not such an issue. In defense of the actors, their accents did mellow somewhat as the play went on.
AWAKE AND SING
By Clifford Odets
A Noise Within
234 Brand Blvd.
Glendale, CA 91204
In repertory with Much Ado About Nothing and soon to open Playboy of the Western World through May 23, 2010
Tickets 818 240 0910 X1