'Awake and Sing!' reaffirms the strength of the human spirit
Awake and Sing! Play by Clifford Odets. Starring Nancy Marchand, Harry Hamlin, Michael Lombard, Paul Sparer, Thomas G. Waites, Benjamin Hendrickson, Dick Latessa, Frances McDormand, Luke Sickle. Directed by Theodore Mann.
''Awake and Sing!'' illustrates vividly how a play out of its era retains the power to engage and stimulate. Looking back on the effect young Clifford Odets's tragicomedy had on audiences in the depression year of 1935, Alfred Kazin wrote:
'' In Odets's play, there was a lyric uplifting of blunt, Jewish speech, boiling over and explosive, that did more to arouse the audience than the political catchwords that brought the curtain down. Everybody on that stage was furious, kicking, alive - the words, always real but never flat, brilliantly authentic like no other theater speech on Broadway, aroused the audience to such delight that one could feel it bounding back and uniting itself with the mind of the writer.''
Conceding that no revival is likely to recapture the authenticity and excitement of the Group Theatre's original, one can applaud the production staged by Theodore Mann for its dedication to the spirit of the play - its lyricism and dynamic energy, not to mention its humor. This is a tribute to a period work preserved but not frozen. ''Awake and Sing!'' lives because of the broader humanity manifest in the ethnic portraiture.
The pillars of the play must be - and at the Circle in the Square are - principal characters Bessie Berger and the patriarchal Jacob.
Nancy Marchand grasps not only Bessie's platitudinizing and scolding and shoddy scheming but also the maternal indomitability that keeps the Berger household going. Paul Sparer's eloquently spoken Jacob owes as much to the Old Testament as to the Marxist dogma the aged ex-barber spouts. Jacob's attitude toward his restive grandson Ralph - caustic, humorous, affectionate - ultimately inspires the dejected young man to leave his disappointments behind and make his own declaration of independence.
The performance as a whole achieves a commendable consistency. The contrasting energy levels of the Berger household are represented by the placid self-effacement of Dick Latessa's ineffectual husband, Myron, and by the fury of Frances McDormand's Hennie Berger. Benjamin Hendrickson brings a genuine pathos to the role of Hennie's immigrant husband-of-convenience. Harry Hamlin tempers Moe Axelrod's dangerous capacity for violence with the devotion that underlies his passion for Hennie.
Michael Lombard's Uncle Morty epitomizes the indulgent condescension of a poor family's rich relative. Luke Sickle's Schloesser is the heckled and defensive janitor of a thousand fifth-floor walk-up Bronx apartments.
''Awake and Sing!'' may not, as Odets hoped, help ''mankind out of the animal kingdom into the clear sweet air.'' But it treats all of its characters with a kind of respect that affirms the qualities of the human spirit rather than diminishing them. The writing still delights with its odd corners, sharp turns, comic non sequiturs, and eloquence. So the play remains valid and moving.
The setting designed by John Conklin uses the Circle in the Square stage effectively and rises to a superstructure of background rooftops that lend symbolic imagery to Jacob's act of suicide. The revival was costumed by Jennifer Von Mayrhauser and lighted by Richard Nelson.