By DORIS RUBENSTEIN
What song is playwright Clifford Odets referring to in his 1935 drama Awake and Sing!?
For most of the play, I thought an appropriate tune would be “Hard Times” by Stephen Collins Foster since the characters who are the heart of the show, the Berger family, are going through the worst of the Great Depression, both financially and personally.
The story unfolds in the Berger’s Bronx apartment. The thrust stage at the Bloomington Center for the Arts’ Artistry Black Box theater is perfect for this show. The set is an excellent recreation (by scenic designer Katie Phillips) of a downwardly-mobile secular Jewish family of the era. It reminded me of my Bubbie and Zaidie’s house in their declining years, with too many people crowded around a lovely dining table, still laid with the good linen.
Words are spoken in accents that are mostly Bronx here (which can be difficult at times for the Midwestern ear), except for the Yiddish one of the grandfather, Jacob (Charles Numrich), a transplanted, die-hard Russian Communist, forced to shove his iron hand into a velvet glove to keep peace in the family.
Peace. It’s needed because there is a lot of conflict here. The dominating and domineering mother, Bessie (Kate Guentzel), thinks that the best way to get her way is to shout her will into her children’s ears. She almost gets her way, too.
Bessie seems to imagine that she raised daughter Hennie (Miriam Schwartz) to be an American Jewish Princess, and that Hennie’s life would have been one of luxury had not the Depression drastically reduced the number of available Jewish millionaires.
Not that the Bergers had much yichusbefore the fall. Father Myron (Jon Andrew Hegge) is a wannabe attorney who in reality works for his blowhard brother-in-law Morty (an outstanding Artistry debut by Howard Held, who is a real-life attorney and Adath Jeshurun member). The search for a husband for Hennie, under difficult conditions, is a crisis that results in an unlikely love triangle between Hennie, the Berger family’s sometime boarder Moe (Paul Rutledge) and a nebbishy-but-ambitious immigrant, Sam (Corey DiNardo). Actually, this is more like a love rectangle: Hennie really is in love with herself only.
More conflict revolves around Hennie’s younger brother, Ralph (Ryan London Levin). Contrary to the stereotype of the Jewish mother idolizing her son, Ralph is a mere piece of furniture to Bessie — that is, until he falls in love with an off-stage Jewish orphan girl.
Bessie objects: the girl has no yichus and is beneath Bessie’s image of the Berger family’s social status. This shortcoming, for Bessie, trumps any feelings that her son may harbor for the girl. Ralph wishes a better life for himself, but lacks the education, drive and some funding to make a real effort. He lacks a supportive family — except for Jacob, who with boundless hope and energy urges Ralph to awake and sing!
Odets’ Jewishness has seldom been in the forefront of his persona as a playwright. While many of his plays’ characters are Jewish, as is the case in Awake and Sing!,they reveal this more through the use of yiddishisms than through actions or references to Jewish holidays or religious customs. The set might have been devoid of Jewish ritual objects, had not Howard Held lent them to the company, since they are irrelevant to the story or the lives of the characters as they live in the play’s script.
The Artistry Black Box is a small space and much of the show’s run is sold-out in advance. There were enough members of our tribe there on opening night, however, to have formed more than one minyan.
Awake and Sing is not produced as often as other Odets plays such as Golden Boy or Waiting for Lefty, the latter considered his masterpiece. These audience members may have come because they knew of Odets’ Jewishness and the importance of this play. Artistic Director Benjamin McGovern (who plays a cameo role as the apartment building janitor) says he chose it because of the richness of the language and its hard times relevance for many in our society today. You can choose for yourself why you want to see it, but you should get your tickets soon. The early shows sold out — for good reasons.
Awake and Sing!plays through Oct. 7 at Artistry, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington. For information visit artistrymn.org.