Reviewed by Judy Richter
Clifford Odets wrote "Awake and Sing!" in the midst of the Great Depression. Aurora Theatre Company is reviving it as the nation is just beginning to emerge from what has been called the worst recession since then. He personalizes the era's travails through the Bergers, an extended Jewish family living in a cramped apartment in the Bronx.
Ostensibly, the family is headed by Myron Berger (Charles Dean), but he's a milquetoast. The real head of the household is his wife, Bessie (Ellen Ratner), a cunning woman who seems determined to keep everyone under her control. The rest of the family includes her father, Jacob (Ray Reinhardt), a Russian immigrant and Marxist; and her two adult children, Hennie (Rebecca White) and Ralph (Patrick Russell). A frequent visitor, Moe (Rod Gnapp), later becomes a boarder there. Completing the family circle are Bessie's brother, Morty (Victor Talmadge), a wealthy but smarmy businessman; and Sam (Anthony Nemirovsky), who marries Hennie after she becomes pregnant by someone else.
Against this backdrop of hard times, Hennie and Ralph try to break loose from their domineering mother and find their own happiness, but Bessie doesn't make it easy for them. However, they're encouraged by Jacob, who -- aside from his political beliefs -- loves opera, particularly Meyerbeer's "L'Africaine" and its signature aria, "O Paradiso," as sung by Enrico Caruso. Reinhardt, one of the gems of Bay Area theater, movingly imparts Jacob's passion for the music and the words.
As directed by Joy Carlin, the rest of the cast is sharp, too, forming a strong ensemble and creating memorable characters despite some weaknesses in the script. One of them leaves the audience guessing about the father of Hennie's child. It can be assumed that tough-guy Moe is the father, but it's never made clear, and Hennie doesn't tell him. Odets also could have developed Ralph's character more. Russell does what he can with the role, but resorts to some overacting to compensate for the lack of writing that would better illustrate his changing emotions. Other characters are better developed, especially Bessie. Ratner makes her a force to be reckoned with, a seemingly hard-hearted, hard-headed matriarch who truly believes she's doing what she can to keep everything together.
The artistic team contributes to the overall effect. For example, set designer Nina Ball uses mismatched chairs at the dining room table and places a Collier's magazine on a table next to the phone, which is in the living room where everyone can hear conversations. Lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Callie Floor and sound by Ted Crimy also bring the audience right into the action in Aurora's intimate space.