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Human in Hard Times

Clifford Odets’s Depression classic gets a gripping treatment

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"All of the characters in Awake and Sing!," writes Clifford Odets in the play's stage directions, "share a fundamental activity: a struggle for life amidst petty conditions." Writing during the Great Depression, when conditions for many couldn't get much pettier, Odets puts money at the root of that struggle, showing how economic hardship can trump noble impulses like love and kindness—especially in America, where life is "printed on dollar bills" (a line Odets likes enough to use three times). The alternatives the playwright proposes can seem willfully naive now, as when he holds up the Soviet Union as a model society. But the vitality of his writing, his richly drawn characters and dynamic poetry, reveal Odets as an artist only masquerading as a propagandist.

Awake and Sing! is set in the small but tidy Bronx apartment of the Bergers, working-class Jews who seem to have become infected by the meanness of their surroundings. Most contaminated of all is the matriarch, Bessie. The necessity of keeping the family afloat and respectable in hard times has made her coarse, conniving, and capable of cruelty. Poverty and misfortune have varying effects on the others, but none of them escapes unblemished. Bessie's father, Jacob—whom almost everyone treats as a doddering old fool—is a lifelong Marxist who preaches revolution but has never taken any steps toward it. Ralph, his idealistic grandson and protege, feels trapped in a crummy job. Pregnant and single, Ralph's fatalistic sister, Hennie, allows Bessie to bully her into marrying a man she barely knows and convincing him he's the father. The boarder, Moe Axelrod, brims with bitter cynicism, having lost a leg in World War I.

It all sounds like grist for a dour protest novel—something flat and preachy, full of slogans and devoid of life. But that's precisely what Awake and Sing! isn't. As the title itself suggests, the play is both thrillingly alive and full of music, with a raw, wounded humanity that no leftist labor sermon could ever convey. You can hear it in the dialogue, an immigrant cacophony of Yiddish inflection and street slang, striking in its vigor and shot through with an evocative, aching lyricism. ("She's like French words," says Ralph of a girl he likes.) And you can see it in the characters themselves, whose failings—even Bessie's—are motivated by a messy tangle of fear, pride, and misguided love. Odets has an almost Chekhovian fondness for even minor figures, from Hennie's duped, bewildered spouse to Bessie's sweet, childish husband Myron.

Amy Morton's gripping production for Northlight Theatre conveys the script's energy by adopting a combative spirit and the momentum of a speeding freight train. In group scenes the cast deliver their lines in quick, sometimes overlapping succession, creating a dizzying torrent of words and the exciting possibility of chaos. Maybe it was all the time she spent as one of the warring Westons in Tracy Letts's August: Osage County, but as a director Morton proves particularly adept at orchestrating a family argument—its crescendoes, repeated motifs, and arias of accusation and self-pity.

But she doesn't let her high-velocity squabbling diminish Odets's characters. The detailed ensemble work she gets from her nine actors keeps the verbal pyrotechnics from descending into incoherent babble. Cindy Gold (who, full disclosure, was a professor of mine at Northwestern) tempers Bessie's animal ferocity with a surprising naivete and a hurt look, suggesting that she's less a predator than a wounded creature who abides by the law of the jungle without fully believing in it. Jay Whittaker imbues Moe Axelrod's bitterness with desperation and vulnerability. And Mike Nussbaum brings pathos and gentle grace to the role of Jacob, the sentimental ideologue who lacks the capacity to transform his beliefs into action.

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