Theatrical collaboration

The cast rehearses ‘Awake and Sing!’ last week. From left are Aaron Orion Baker, Julie Layton, Bobby Miller, Gary Wayne Barker and Elizabeth Ann Townsend. Photo: Lisa Mandel

BY PATRICIA CORRIGAN, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

In the Great Depression, Clifford Odets wrote “Awake and Sing!,” a play about a family’s responses to challenges that sound eerily familiar. Kathleen Sitzer, artistic director of the New Jewish Theatre, ticks off those challenges: A broken economy, war on foreign shores, anti-Semitism, the search for personal fulfillment.

Steve Woolf, who directs the New Jewish Theatre’s production of the play, hails Odets’ work as “a fine play, a seminal play in American dramatic literature that led the way for the strong women in Arthur Miller’s works and the family structure in Neil Simon’s plays.” Woolf, of course, is the artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

What’s not to like in this collaboration?

Sitzer is exhilarated. “I have wanted to do this play for a long time – it is a Jewish classic – and we can do it now that we have the space,” she says. “Plus I am absolutely thrilled that New Jewish Theatre is the first St. Louis theater that Steve has chosen to work with. There is a lot of interest because Steve is directing.”

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The play, which won a Tony Award in 2006 for Best Revival, opens April 20 and runs through May 8 at the Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive. The Wall Street Journal calls the play “one of the greatest of all American plays.”

“Awake and Sing!” is about the lives of the Bergers, a working-class Jewish family that lives in a crowded apartment in the Bronx in the 1930’s. Sitzer calls it “gritty, passionate, funny and heartbreaking.” Describing the play as “a fierce love story,” Woolf says, “No matter how things derail or get rough – and some of those moments are uncomfortable – the underpinning of all of that stems from love and protection.”

Bessie is the matriarch of the family. “Like in so many Jewish families, the mother holds it together,” says Sitzer. Ralph, 22, is the optimist in the family, always talking about the future. Jake, Ralph’s grandfather – a man who claims to be an avid reader of Marxist doctrine and who listens to Enrico Caruso sing of paradise – sees Ralph as the future. Moe, a cynic and romantic at the same time, woos Hennie, Ralph’s sister, with more talk of paradise. He even refers to her using that exact term.

When “Awake and Sing!” opened on Broadway in 1935, it signified a historic change. “This wasn’t something you would see in Yiddish theater, a play ghettoized on Second Avenue,” says Woolf. “This play made the jump from being about a Jewish family living in a tenement to being about a family that happened to be Jewish. This play said culturally to the Jews that they belonged.”

Sitzer and Woolf agree that the play is best experienced in the theater, rather than encountered on the page. “Odets wrote this play in the vernacular of working class people of the time,” says Sitzer. “The language may not be today’s, but the issues certainly are, and when you hear the language spoken, it flows beautifully.”

Woolf adds, “The idiomatic speech of that era has its own music and rhythm to it. Odets’ deft use of language is striking, and anyone who sees the show will recognize that the writing is amazing.”

The two also are equally delighted with the cast, which includes Aaron Orion Baker, Gary Wayne Barker, Jason Cannon, Julie Layton, Terry Meddows, Bobby Miller, Jordan Reinwald, Elizabeth Townsend and Jerry Vogel. In Sitzer’s words, the show is blessed with “a dream cast of local talent.” During the rehearsal period, Woolf reports that, “The cast is working hard and will deliver a wonderful production.”

Sitzer, now celebrating the 14th year of the theater she founded, has high hopes for the run of “Awake and Sing!” She notes, “I think audiences will be impressed and excited with this show. I also think this show will lift us to the next level, and increase expectations.”

Sitzer laughs. “Then all we have to do is meet them.”

New Jewish Theatre

WHAT: “Awake and Sing!” by Clifford Odets

WHEN: April 20-May 8

WHERE: Wool Studio Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive

HOW MUCH: $26-$36

TICKETS: www.newjewishtheatre.org or 314-442-3283