By: Ronnie Ruff
Awake and Sing—Arena Stage
It is easy to understand Zelda Fichandler’s love of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing currently mounted at Arena Stage. Awake and Sing is the story of two generations, one who has accepted the “American Dream” of values and hard work that seems to have failed them and the younger generation who have no choice but to believe a better day will come, but are not convinced that the values of their parents will get them there. That said, the play is more a story of family dynamics than a vision of depression era New York City. Arena’s staging of Awake and Sing does not describe the desperate roles citizens of the Bronx had to assume in order to live – it does describe the interpersonal relationships in this dysfunctional family where a dominate matriarch (Jana Robbins as Bessie Berger) verbally abuses her husband (Steve Routman as Myron Berger) and keeps the family on edge and in line. Yes the family has a boarder (Adam Dannheisser as Moe Axelrod), but it also has a rich uncle (Brian Reddy as Uncle Morty) to help with the expenses, something the average family in the Bronx circa 1935 did not have.
This is the return of Robert Prosky to the DC stage and he does a great job of living up to his long and talented acting career. Dynamic and full of verve Prosky walks the stage with measured confidence delivering a speech at the beginning of the second act that was brilliant but a reminder of the dated material.
Far more interesting is Steve Routman who with a meek and defeated manner is able to draw you in to his troubled existence. Routman delivers self depreciating lines that have you feeling for his problems while secretly grinning all the while. Portraying a woman who is easy to dislike Jana Robbins assumes the role of Bessie Berger, strong and overbearing, she helps us visualize the strong sometimes misunderstood aspects of a mother’s love. The rest of the cast performs admirably, Richard J Canzano as Sam Feinschreiber gives a well conceived performance that is worthy of notice.
Andromache Chalfont’s set design spanned across two rooms of period furnishings — the Arena set is functional and shows great detail. Marc Gwinn’s sound design is superior, even during the softly whimpered witticisms of Myron Berger one is able to clearly hear all of the dialog even from the back of the house and the wonderful thirty’s sounds are simply exquisite. Costumes by Linda Cho are visually pleasing, maybe too much so given the times during which the family lived.
If viewed as a story of a family that works through dysfunction and tragedy while keeping hope for a better future instead of an example of day to day Bronx life in the 1930s Awake and Sing has many wonderful lessons to share with today’s audience. Zelda Fichandler’s return to Arena is an event any DC theatre fan would not want to miss and given the production’s fine acting and quality staging it is thus recommended even if the play itself is not as relevant as it once was.