Moe (Jamie Geiger, kneeling) and Hennie (Natalie Arneson, standing).
Photo by www.RicOrnelProductions.com
A desperate family in desperate times. No, not a story culled from yesterday’s headlines, but the scenario of Clifford Odets’ masterwork Awake and Sing!, now playing at Houston’s Main Street Theater (MST). Set during the depression-ravaged 1930s, Odets’ enduring play depicts the everyday life of the Bergers, a struggling Jewish family living in the east Bronx in1935. Bessie, the overbearing Jewish mother of all mothers, loves and smothers her children, ignores her husband, and generally drives everyone nuts with her hyper-reactivity and demands for “respect.” Myron Berger, the beaten down dad, just tries to survive and stay out of Bessie’s path. Hennie, the hard-edged daughter, brims with anger over her situation and holds it all in, almost. Moe Axelrod, a war hero and family friend, has wooden leg, a head full of paradise and a killer crush on Hennie. Grandfather Jacob survives on philosophy (Marx), music (Caruso) and giving inspirational advice (“Make something of yourself”). Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, is the one man with money, but his happy-go-lucky attitude adds tension rather than relief. Ralph, the dutiful son, goes to work every day at as a clerk to contribute to the household and his own arrested development. Folksy colloquialisms fly about the stage as this family finds itself trapped by circumstances and their ideals. Dreams and disappointments play out within the tight container of Berger’s cramped flat.
Luisa Amaral-Smith is terrific as the insufferable mother whose heavy-handed love comes over the household like a gigantic cloud. George Brock embodies the stifled husband with a noble grace. Steve Garfinkel imbues Jacob, the calm and all knowing socialist.with a steady presence. Natalie Arneson’s Hennie is one girl on the brink. She’s particularly believable in her final scenes with Moe. Jamie Geiger portrays the fast-talking wisecracker, Moe, with a mixture of gusto and desperation. Charles Swan gives Ralph a time bomb edge. As the rest of the family is literally paralyzed by their situation, Swan’s restless energy penetrates. He’s the exhaust valve for this troubled lot, and Swan navigates that volatility well, especially when he collapses in Jacob’s arms. During the play’s final seconds, Swan is especially potent when he stands to face his future, broken but still wide-eyed and sustained by a shred of hope.
Director Cheryl L. Kaplan keeps close to the period in her treatment, fully utilizing MST’s tiny space to create a claustrophobic atmosphere. The audience is literally stuffed inside the Berger’s apartment. There’s no escape. No need to guess what that feels like. We get it right away. Trey Otis’ set design lends a sense of the crumbling dignity of this family and Margaret Crowley’s period costumes work well.
Sure, the play is obviously timely, but that’s not what necessarily all you take home. Odets’ fully fleshed-out characters question the price of materialism, imagine a life that’s not “printed on dollar bills” and strive for meaning amidst the most dire circumstances. So it reads in Isaiah 26:19, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust,” a potent message for then and now.