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Awake and Sing!

Dreams and nightmares are brought to life in Clifford Odets' timeless American drama.

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Rick Foucheux as Jacob and Alex Mandell as Ralph Berger in Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!, directed by Serge Seiden, at the Olney Theatre Center.
(© Stan Barouh)

When Awake and Sing! was first produced in 1935, playwright Clifford Odets was speaking to issues relevant to his time: economic hardship, morality, family stability, and the distance between dreams and reality. Now, at the close of its 2014 season, the Olney Theatre Center has opened an Awake and Sing! that addresses those same issues with clarity and vision 80 years after Odets wrote it.

Odets' play centers on the Bergers, a Bronx Jewish family that is struggling to make it through the Depression. The family's matriarch, Bessie, is determined to keep them all afloat. Despite the fact that her home is already overcrowded with relatives — her husband, Myron, her two children, 22-year-old Ralph and 26-year-old Hennie, and her father, Jacob — Bessie takes in a boarder, Moe, to help with expenses.

There are two momentous events that advance the plot: the birth of a child and a suicide. And there are smaller important events: Ralph finds a girlfriend, then loses her; Hennie elopes with Moe. But the movement of the play depends less on these individual events than it does on the small, constant clash and alignment of personalities in the Berger home. It is this taut blend of plot and character that has allowed Awake and Sing! to attract audiences for so many years.

Naomi Jacobson is perfect as the steely Bessie, who constantly cooks, cleans, and fusses about her children's futures. She never wavers in her belief that she will find a rich husband for Hennie. She never doubts that her son will marry the right Jewish girl and support his whole family.

Alex Mandell is impressive as Ralph, an idealistic young man unhappily serving as a clerk. He is frustrated that he can't see a way to alter his life without breaking away from his family. Mandell vibrantly illuminates the highs and lows of Ralph's existence, his bouts of despair giving way to euphoria.

Jacob is portrayed with wit and gusto by Rick Foucheux. Jacob is an excitable Marxist who adores the opera singer Enrico Caruso. He urges his grandson not to listen to Bessie but to strike out on his own and create the world he desires. Jacob is a tremendously important moral force in the play, and Foucheux portrays him with passion, as a simple but deeply ethical man.

Laura Harris plays Hennie effectively as a self-centered, diffident young woman who is restlessly searching for happiness. The only weakness in this production is that we are asked to believe that there has been a serious physical encounter between Hennie and Moe (Chris Genebach) before the play begins. Unfortunately, there is never adequate sexual sizzle between Harris and Genebach to make that important issue credible.

Paul Morella gives a beautifully muted and humorous performance as Myron, the father of the family, a self-effacing man who spends his days remembering the past, recalling how good things were when Teddy Roosevelt was in charge.

Two peripheral characters occasionally visit the Berger home. Uncle Morty (Richard Pelzman) is a successful businessman who drops by from time to time. Pelzman plays him well, as a confident and untrustworthy braggart. Joshua Morgan is delightful as the perpetually frazzled Sam, an immigrant who worships Hennie.

Director Serge Seiden transforms eight actors into a tight ensemble, keeping the energy flowing at a snappy pace throughout and handily emphasizing the nonstop movement between each character and his or her dreams. Fortunately, Seiden has kept the original jargon of the play, and the rough language contributes mightily to a sense of the grittiness of the time and place in which Awake and Sing! occurs.

Jack Magaw's set is a marvel of naturalistic design. On the Olney's large main stage, the Bergers' living room contains a sofa and two overstuffed chairs. In the dining room, five or six people crowd around a table. The outer hallway allows room for characters to gather as they enter or exit. Only the shabby walls and discolored shades suggest the family's poverty. Caitlin Rain's costumes contribute to the period feel with her well-designed examples of 1930s apparel.

All Odets' plays reflect an inevitable struggle among human beings to survive their circumstances with dignity. This production of Awake and Sing! is a precise and exuberantly poetic version of one of Odet's finest plays.

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