Awake and Sing! Theatre Review - Brilliant Acting Drives Odets Masterpiece

Bessie (Deborah Strang) contemplates on her family's welfare

(Glendale, CA) April, 2010 – Once upon a time, there lived a family who is desperately trying to survive their country’s financial downfall. Their collected income has been dramatically decreased (resulting in them renting bedroom space for friends and aging relatives), tempers flare and explode, and their hope and faith regarding their respective futures turns bleak. Does this sound familiar, as though it’s a family story that is happening right now in this idealized era of “Hope and Change?” Perhaps. But what makes the themes of Clifford Odets’ classic AWAKE AND SING! appropriate is its ability to transcend time, to expose how financial desperation can drive individuals into actions that lead to unseen consequences. With regard to A Noise Within’s production of this play, their talented cast illuminates these timeless themes of desperation, dreams, and the fragility of family.

Jacob (Len Lesser) shares his words of wisdom to Ralph (Adam Silver)

It’s 1935, and the Berger family is at the end of its rope. The father Myron ( Joel Swetow) can barely make ends meet with his work days being trimmed down with each passing month, resulting in the family renting out their son’s own bedroom to family friend Moe Axelrod ( Daniel Reichert). The son Ralph ( Adam Silver) dreams of freedom not only regarding his own personal finances, but also his spiritual freedom from the oppressive household. Daughter Hennie ( Molly Leland) has her own dreams for escape, which are crushed with an unwanted pregnancy. And the matriarch Bessie ( Deborah Strang) tries to keep the family together by any means necessary, while swallowing her own envy regarding her brother Morty’s ( Alan Bloomenfeld) success as a business owner. Meanwhile, grandfather Jacob ( Len Lesser) listens and shares his words of wisdom in order to calm the family fires, while experiencing disillusionment of his own regarding how his Marxist views only intensify the situation, committing more damage.

Moe (Daniel Reichert, center) talks about the American Dream and its reality as Myron (Joel Swetow) and Bessie (Deborah Strang) look on

Awake and Sing! is indeed a classic and timeless in terms of its basic themes regarding family drama. But the play, as well as Odets' other works, are quite heavy-handed and overly didactic in terms of dialogue, making his  first work somewhat dated. This can be also said about the play’s elements regarding Marxism and the playwright’s political leanings towards Socialism. Odets focuses too much on the fantasy of this political ideology (in terms of perceived “individual freedom and independence”), and conveniently ignores its oppressive and self-serving reality. It’s a challenging play to produce, and the talented cast succeeds in showing the overall dramatic mosaic. A Noise Within’s Resident Artists Deborah Strang and Joel Swetow drive the production by portraying how two emotionally wounded souls adapt to their oppressive environment. Strang’s Bessie is the dominating matriarch that is reminiscent of the mother in The Glass Menagerie where both characters do whatever it takes to have their children financially established. But instead of the Southern Belle tones, influences, and nostalgia from Menagerie, Bessie is an East Coast Jew whose ambitions are fueled by unbridled guilt, rage, and regret. On the other end of the spectrum is Swetow’s submissive Myron, who is a constant follower to Bessie and any other dynamic personality that is present in the household, including his brother-in-law Morty (a riveting performance by Allan Blumenfeld, whose portrayal begins as charismatic, but slowly reveals his greedy nature. Fantastic!). Swetow craftily shows Myron’s shattered nature in every way, including his chronic stooping posture, but still maintains his character’s compassion and dignity. Bravo to both Strang and Swetow.

Jacob (Len Lesser) and Bessie (Deborah Strang) listen to Morty (Alan Blumenfeld) talk about his success

Adam Silver and Molly Leland shine as well, playing the children of such emotional dysfunction. Silver’s energetic Ralph is a typical young dreamer whose courage, ideology, and tenacity are fueled by the love of his grandfather (An incredible portrayal by veteran theater and film character actor Len Lesser, whose ability to show Jacob’s passionate nature and subtly is absolutely masterful). Leland is touching with her portrayal of Hennie, who is a prisoner of her naïveté and the times. Her sympathetic nature at the beginning of the play transforms to a type of self-centered pathos and Leland reveals that change wonderfully. Another character who transforms is Reichert’s Moe, but his is the total opposite to Hennie’s. We see him in the beginning as a slick con-man and hustler type who preys on Hennie’s vulnerability. However, as the play continues, we see he is both emotionally and physically scarred from serving in World War One (where he lost his leg). Reichert replaces Moe’s arrogance with strength and integrity, especially during his key confrontations with Blumenfeld’s Morty. And in the end, Reichert excellently depicts Moe’s heroism in the household. David Lengel and Alan Waserman are especially poignant as Sam (Hennie’s hen-pecked husband) and Schlosser, two men who are trying to survive the cards that have been dealt to them. Overall, the riveting cast of Odets’ classic grabs the audience by the metaphorical throat and forces them to “awake and sing” for more.

Awake and Sing! opened March 23, 2010 and runs through May 22, 2010

A Noise Within
234 South Brand Boulevard
Glendale, CA 91204


Photos by: Craig Schwartz

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