REVIEW: Awake and Sing! Recovers a Precious Bit of American Theater History

DJ Gleason and Lawrence Pressman in Awake and Sing! at Quintessence. (Photo by Shawn May)

America tends to canonize a Holy Trinity of 20thcentury playwrights—Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams—as our theater’s founding fathers. There were, of course, other notable ones, but they’re only dimly remembered.

That’s the fate of Clifford Odets, who deserves greater recognition on two fronts. As a writer, he strove to capture in realistic detail the lives and dreams of working-class, often marginalized characters; as a founder of the legendary Group Theatre, he helped bring that voice to the stage through productions with an acting and directing style that similarly felt “real.”

Awake and Sing!, probably Odets’ magnum opus, is a good example of both. It tells of a Jewish family in Bronx, the Bergers, each of whom struggles. Bessie and Myron, a married couple with two adult children, are saddled with regrets for what they should have achieved but didn’t. Bessie’s elderly father, Jacob, copes with his disappointments by withdrawing into a private world where he listens to Enrico Caruso on the gramophone. Unsurprisingly, daughter Hennie and son Ralph seem poised to go nowhere.

Odets’ compassionate but unflinching depiction of the Bergers—their family tensions and chronically tight finances—tellingly contradicts the prevailing American Dream mythology. And the original production, chock-a-block with Group Theatre members (including director Harold Clurman, brother-and-sister stars Stella and Luther Adler, and Jules Garfield, who would go on to too-brief movie stardom as John Garfield), was a laboratory for a new kind of naturalistic acting.

To be fair, there are reasons for Odets’ relative obscurity today. A social activist, he tends to write in bold strokes with a fixed sense of good and evil. There’s too much exposition and not enough subtext. Characters express exactly who they are and what they think. Bessie, in particular, comes across as a stereotyped Jewish mother. The moment when, in a fury, she smashes Jacob’s beloved 78s is a pretty risky metaphor, since the playwright himself can be a bit of a broken record, rarely saying something once if he can repeat it again and again.

And yet, there’s also power in that directness. Odets is nothing if not earnest—he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he believes in his causes and characters. The great thing about Awake and Sing!at Quintessence Theatre Group is that they believe in it, too.

Students of American drama hear a lot about the Group Theatre, its values and aesthetics. Here, we can actually see and understand them in practice. Director Max Shulman, his actors, and his designers (set by Meghan Jones, lights by Natalie Robin, costumes by Summer Lee Jack, sound by Tom Carman) bring the Berger home lovingly to life, full of skillful detail. The company know when to take their time, to work slowly and quietly. Two-character scenes are especially effective, often feeling like real conversations.

Melody Ladd and Lee Cortopassi in Awake and Sing! at Quintessence (Photo by Shawn May)

Watch Hennie (Melody Ladd, excellent) and her beau-that-got-away, Moe (Lee Cortopassi, ditto) as they awkwardly try to connect in Act I. Or the sweet scene between Ralph (the touchingly boyish DJ Gleason) and Jacob (Lawrence Pressman) near the beginning of Act II. Pressman is a superb and very well-known actor, but it’s the ultimate compliment here to say that he melds seamlessly into the ensemble.

Awake and Sing!has its big moments, too—these are sometimes awkwardly written, but they’re important to the story arc. Sabrina Profitt (Bessie) has the largest share of them, and to her credit she never backs away from the size and scale of the character’s grief and rage.

Here, one is aware of Odets’ flaws as a writer—but even more, we see his grandeur. Also his broad influence—on Neil Simon’s Jerome family plays, for sure, which seem to use Awake and Sing!very much as a model.

Quintessence has earned a significant reputation with their audacious rethinking of classic plays, but here, by precisely observing tradition, Shulman and company revivify a flawed but important piece of American theater history.

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Awake and Sing! runs through February 17. For more information, visit the Quintessence Theatre website.

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