By Clifford Odets
Directed by Stephen Brown-Fried
Groundbreaking in its day, Clifford Odets’ 1935 family drama brought the tribulations of the proletariat and the poetry of everyday speech to the Broadway stage. Though its style and rhythms haven’t dated well, the issues at the center of AWAKE AND SING are still prevalent in today’s world. The immigrant experience, intergenerational strife, and the ever-present tension between the promise of America and its economic realties are all part the fabric of daily life in the 21st Century. With plenty of heart and a modern approach to stagecraft, this lively revival minimizes the script’s shortcomings and highlights the relevance of its content.
In a small Bronx apartment, several generations of the Berger family struggle to make the best of things during the Great Depression. Myron (Henry Yuk) has been to law school, but lacks the drive to get ahead. His wife Bessie (Mia Katigbak) is the real leader of the family, and frequently butts heads with her strong-willed daughter Hennie (Teresa Avia Lim) and restless son Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider). Bessie’s father Jacob (Alok Tewari) feeds his dream of a better world by listening to Caruso records and voraciously reading both the Bible and Karl Marx. His polar opposite is Bessie’s brother Morty (Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte) a successful businessman who cheerily extols the virtues of free market capitalism. Wounded war veteran Moe Axelrod (Sanjit De Silva) is in love with Hennie, and part of her feels the same way. But Bessie stands in their way. The star-crossed lovers’ problems worsen when an unwanted pregnancy forces Henni to settle into a marriage of convenience with Sam Feinschreiber (David Shih). With all these feelings and agendas thrust together under one roof, there are bound to be conflicts, and sure enough even the building’s superintendent (Mel Duane Gionson) is quick to clash with headstrong Bessie. Yet somehow the younger (and more deeply Americanized) members of the Berger clan manage to tune out the din long enough listen to the still, small voice within their hearts.
Under Stephen Brown-Fried’s sensitive direction, the members of the National Asian American Theatre Company coalesce into a believable, lovingly fractious family. Every member of the large cast gets a turn at center stage, and each of their arias are delivered with passion and precision. Like her character, Katigbak forms the center of the ensemble, potently embodying the primal, protective drives beneath Bessie’s wheedling tactics. The family’s aspirations are further illustrated by Anshuman Bhatia’s house-proud set design and the five-and-dime elegance of Alexae Visel’s period costumes.
AWAKE AND SING continues through August 8, 2015 at the Public Theater, 475 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10003 Tickets: (212) 967-7555