NJT soars with ‘Awake and Sing’

(From left) Julie Layton, Gary Wayne Barker, Elizabeth Townsend and Bobby Miller perform in the New Jewish Theatre’s ‘Awake and Sing.’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus

Clifford Odets, one of the leading playwrights of left-wing social protest and a master craftsman of Depression-era Jewish family dynamics, would no doubt be proud of the soaring New Jewish Theatre production of one of his best plays, “Awake and Sing,” which has been brought to the stage under the brilliant direction of Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Odets could capture the full range of emotions of a let-it-all hang out East Coast Jewish family years before Arthur Miller visited the same territory in “Death of a Salesman” or Woody Allen did in the famous split-screen sequence in “Annie Hall.”

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There is not a single weak performance in the outstanding ensemble cast. Woolf, who directs the production with insight and a steady hand, says that Odets “captured something very special in this play. He found a kind of visceral poetry of our language that mixes some of the rhythms of the Yiddish theater, the New York idioms, the vernacular of the jazz age and the Depression. Most of all, he lets us view a family and their lives that may appear to be just ordinary but become extraordinary in his sense of story and language.”

The Berger family in “Awake and Sing,” which derives its title from the Book of Isaiah, is a microcosm of many first and second generation American families who came to these shores from the late 1880s through the 1920s. The family patriarch is Jacob, brought vividly to life in a stunning performance by Bobby Miller. Jacob belongs to the generation of secular Jews who embraced Marxist Communism and utopian Socialism with the same fervor that their Orthodox Jewish cousins embraced traditional Judaism. Jacob retains his socialistic passions even though much of life has passed him by. He spends his days reading his Marxist books and listening to his collection of Caruso records.

Jacob’s son-in-law is Myron Berger, the supposed “head of the household.” But the “pants in the family” are clearly worn by his wife Bessie who orchestrates the complicated family dynamics with a potent mixture of primitive love and concern – even brute force.

Gary Wayne Barker is fully believable as Myron Berger, a man who lives in quiet disappointment for having dropped out of law school after two years, and who tries to keep the family peace despite the non-stop chaos and drama generated by his tornado-like wife Bessie. Elizabeth Ann Townsend manages to avoid making Bessie into a cartoonish overbearing Jewish mother, offering a textured view of a complex and conflicted woman. Aaron Orion Baker does a good job in the role of the Bergers’ son Ralph, who is in love with an off-stage woman from the wrong side of the tracks and who is desperate to achieve the financial security to break out of the cage of his enmeshed family and the stifling drudgery of working for his Uncle Morty, well played by Jerry Vogel. Morty is a man who has achieved financial success during the depths of the Depression, but who is utterly clueless about how to honor other people’s feelings.

Julie Layton is a scene-stealer as the Bergers’ feisty and restless daughter Hennie, who is also struggling to find her identity as an adult woman with strong passions. She finds a perfect match in Moe Axelrod, powerfully portrayed by Jason Cannon. Moe, who lost his leg in World War I, is a tough-as-nails, street smart Bronx shtarker who is involved with petty rackets because in New York in 1935 “everything is a racket.”

There is also good work by Jordan Reinwald as Sam Feinschreiber, a fresh-off-the boat “greenhorn” Jewish immigrant who is duped into a role in the Berger family he neither deserves nor desires. Terry Meddows is spot-on as Schlosser, the super in the apartment building.

The production values in the NJT’s production of “Awake and Sing” are particularly effective, especially the authentic-looking 1930s set by Scott C. Neale, the scenic designer. The vintage wallpaper, the stand-up telephone and the nostalgia-evoking radio transport much of the audience back to the homes of their grandparents during the depths of the Depression.

While it is apparent that Odets, like Arthur Miller shared much of the socialist realism sensibilities of his character Jacob, the politics of the play never seems forced or arbitrary. As spoken in the lilting voice of Bobby Miller, the idealistic and utopian thoughts and dreams of Jacob seem almost poetic, and completely oblivious to the horrors of the Stalinist Soviet Union that would become apparent after the purge trials and the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It took a long time for the New Jewish Theatre to get around to producing a Clifford Odets play. But it was worth the wait to see the final product, deftly directed, beautifully acted and splendidly produced.

‘Awake and Sing’

When: 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thurs.; 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 & 7:30 p.m. May 1 and 2 p.m. May 8

Where: Marvin and Helene Wool Studio Theater at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur

How much: $26-$36

More info: www.newjewishtheatre.org or 314-442-3283