It’s amazing how topical something from the 1930’s feels and fits right here and now when it’s a classic, expertly cast and directed. Awake and Sing! depicts one family’s story, one of the first to chronicle Jewish family scenes without derision or ridicule. The show starts with everyone seated for a family meal, an automatic sign of the group support and dynamics of family life—even when bickering, an unshakeable bond seals them together. The ageless popularity of the piece comes from family ties that bind tighter than a Gordian knot.
Director Serge Seiden creates a tableau with all the characters in terms of their relationships with each other, and even literally when they’re periodically all spread out across the stage.
The stellar casting starts with Naomi Jacobson in a tour de force performance as tough-love matriarch Bessie Berger. Nothing gets past Mom Berger who handles every bit of household minutia, dealing with whatever is thrown at her like she’s spinning multiple plates—she will find a way to handle any news, no matter how devastating. A survivor tenacity kicks in and she plows her way through, even if it means plowing under anyone who gets in her way.
The always remarkable Rick Foucheux disappears into his role yet again, this time as the caring patriarch Jacob with the inside scoop on everybody’s business because he’s the listening, caring one. It’s Jacob’s actions that help propel the story, and Foucheux gives it the heft needed to bring the pieces together.
Paul Morella’s understated performance as husband and father is one for the ages. What he can do with a single line, a turn, a pause and reactive movement is classic.
Same thing with Joshua Morgan as the new immigrant, Sam, who will gladly accept the crumbs as long as he’s got a chance to sit at the table. He’s anxious and furtively thankful to experience the possibilities in the “new “country. His sudden movements and breathlessness come from knowing he barely escaped the persecution that trapped and consumed so many of his countrymen. He appreciates the whims of fate that spared him sure death, so being cuckolded into a loveless marriage with a secret pregnancy already in the making was not a big deal in the scheme of things. Morgan has a natural, intuitive sense of the heart of his character. He starts from a bedrock of strength at his base and core and goes from there. One can sense the legacy of the death camps in his sentient thoughts and memories that come through with an urgent reality.
Then there’s Alex Mandell and Laura C. Harris as brother and sister, different as night and day on the outside but bonded on the inside. Harris plays the flighty Hennie who flutters about looking for love in all wrong places, sheltered and clueless about life’s toll on errant bad decisions, while Ralph’s character yearns for more from his first utterance to the end of the play. Mandell relays Ralph’s pent-up adolescent energy ready to erupt on anything in its way. He’s athletically charming when bounding across the set, springing off the couch, or pacing when awaiting a phone call from his love interest, Blanche.
Ralph has a special connection with the elder Jacob and represents potential for the next generation. Chris Genebach is solid as the wounded warrior Moe, throwing out quips and tough-guy aspersions like nothing matters to him. But his vulnerability peeks through the blustery bravado with every lift of his artificial limb. Finally, Richard Pelzman brings a genuine caring to his several smaller though just as significant roles
AWAKE AND SING!
Closes October 29, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
The set design by Jack Magaw has the worn and tired feel of a space filled with memories and legacy with multi-purpose utility. Seiden uses the space effectively with characters entering and exiting out of the various doors and passageways to back bedrooms, the kitchen, or the interesting foray to the outside. The exit to the world outside is someone obstructed—one can only see it from the lovely windows, providing an interesting physical construct about the insular sense of family.
The classic script expresses the characters’ sense of wonder being in America from a perspective of old souls trying to figure out their “opportunity” almost within their grasp. That word is sprinkled throughout the script like leavening. Odets captures the characters’ grasp to seize the day and make whatever decisions have to be made “in the pursuit of happiness.” That’s what gives the play a powerful edge and keeps it enduringly timeless -the relentless quest for beauty and happiness in the midst of life’s shabby reality.
The sound of the perfect tenor Enrico Caruso fills the air from Jacob’s phonograph collection, and Ralph describes Blanche as beautiful, “like French words.” So much of life’s beauty is unattainable, but this American dream production means you grab for it anyway, for any and all to Awake and Sing!
Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets . Directed by Serge Seiden . Featuring Naomi Jacobson, Rick Foucheux, Paul Morella, Richard Pelzman, Laura C. Harris, Chris Genebach, and Joshua Morgan . Scenic design: Jack Magaw . Costume design: Caitlin Rain . Lighting design: Daniel Maclean Wagner . Sound design: Max Krembs . Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva . Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.
AWAKE AND SING!
Closes Oct. 19
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post Seiden’s sure-handed, occasionally inspired staging is a reminder of why “Awake!” stays solidly in the rep.
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway sensitive direction and some memorable performances.
highly satisfying, often soul-stirring production.
not so much a “feel-good” play, as it is a “feel-deeply” play.