Stephen Schnetzer, Michael Goldsmith, Will LeBow, David Wohl, and Eric T. Miller in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!, directed by Melia Bensussen, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company.
Stephen Schnetzer, Michael Goldsmith, Will LeBow, David Wohl, and Eric T. Miller in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!, directed by Melia Bensussen, at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company.
(© T. Charles Erickson)

There was an air of an occasion around the opening night of the Huntington Theatre Company's revival of Clifford Odets' 1935 play, Awake and Sing!, as if the audience understood the importance of this work to our national theatrical tradition. Long considered Odets' masterpiece, the play has stood the test of the passing decades, despite some creaky plot manipulations. The group portrait of a family locked in circumstances it cannot control continues to deliver an emotional jolt.

At its world premiere, the first, full-length play by Odets — a treatment of lower-middle-class life in a Jewish home in the Bronx — brought the gritty reality of the era's hard times to Broadway. Like Anton Chekhov's comedy-dramas of families in disarray and Arthur Miller's plays about people making mistakes that have deep consequences, Odets portrayed ordinary folks trying to escape from the day-to-day traumas of getting by. To his characters, the promise of the American dream seemed always out of reach.

Under the highly controlled direction of Melia Bensussen, the fate of the Bergers unfolds over a period of several years. Bessie Berger is the dragon lady of Jewish mothers, ruthless in her desire to project her two children into a better life, whether they want her guidance or not. Hennie, her daughter, who is unmarried and pregnant, is forced into a loveless marriage with a recent immigrant, Sam Feinschreiber, to protect her reputation (and that of her mother). Bessie's son, Ralph, her great hope, is in love with an orphaned gentile girl (a shiksa in Odets' description), who is totally unacceptable to her scheme. Myron Berger, Bessie's husband, wears a dog-in-the-manger look as he does what he is told. Jacob, Bessie's father, a polemic-spouting Marxist, has been reduced to living with his daughter and relying on his successful son, Morty, for support. He has pinned his hopes on seeing Ralph revolt against the restraints of life in the Bronx apartment, urging him to "Awake and Sing!" The boarder, Moe Axelrod, a wounded solider from World War I and a smalltime crook, has a yen for Hennie. When Jacob sees no other resolution, he precipitates change by making a tragic decision.

Bensussen has assembled a fine ensemble, led by Lori Wilner as a youthful-looking, somewhat stylish Bessie Berger, and Will LeBow as Jacob, who shouts his opinions rather than speaking them when he is not listening to his beloved recordings by Caruso. Michael Goldsmith is the downtrodden Ralph, never breaking out of expectations until the drastic ending: Annie Purcell portrays the disaffected Hennie whom the world has passed by until she finds the courage to take a second chance. Eric T. Miller creates the most complex and memorable character, the disabled war veteran, Moe Axelrod, out to grab what he can. Nael Nacer brings overtones of Chekhovian acquiescence to the role of Sam, Hennie's neglected husband.

Designed by James Noone, with lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal, the Bergers' cramped apartment is set beneath three stories of identical rows of closed doors rising high above the stage floor, as if the tenement were a physical weight to be carried on their backs.

For all the blame heaped on Bessie, the outcome of the family's lives is determined as much by the Depression, their need for money to pay the rent and make ends meet, and the disappointment in which they are mired, as by her goading. It's hard to remember the last time a work by Odets has been revived in Boston. The Huntington Theatre Company has done us a large favor by mounting this elegant, gut-wrenching production of a play that needs to be shown to every generation.