Set in the Bronx during the Depression, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” gets juiced with some decidedly contemporary and prototypically Chicago-style acting in Amy Morton’s production at Northlight Theater. Best known for her Tony-nominated role in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” Morton infuses Odets’ family drama with a Letts-like vigor; the characters speak over each other, and dinner time quickly crescendos into a shooting gallery of emotional pain. It ain’t just capitalism that’s cold and cruel and cynical in this compelling but imbalanced take on the 1935 drama. It’s the people themselves.
Don’t expect nostalgia for old-fashioned family life here, even if a touch of that can easily be found in Odets’ play, where three generations of Bergers live in a crowded but well-kept apartment.
Played with forceful intensity by Cindy Gold, matriarch Bessie dominates her kin. She insults her long-since-defeated husband, Myron (Peter Kevoian); dismisses her socialist-preaching father, Jacob (a terrific Mike Nussbaum, doddering but lovable); does all she can to undermine the love affair of her son Ralph (Keith Gallagher) with a poor girl; and, upon learning daughter Hennie (Audrey Francis) is pregnant, forces her into a loveless union with industrious immigrant Sam Feinschreiber (Demetrios Troy).
Bartlett Sher’s 2006 Broadway revival brought the work renewed attention, proving that Odets’ socialist idealism didn’t drive the play so much as its characters’ existential yearnings. That production seemed to center on young Ralph, and how his hopeful search for life’s meaning managed to survive tragedy, heartbreak and economic fear.
In Morton’s take, “Awake and Sing!” belongs to Bessie; the battle becomes not so much between idealism and practicality as between practicality and cynicism.
Morton deserves huge credit for having a clear take on the play and pursuing it to its extremes. Her actors mine the characters for deeply felt passions, and there’s nary a line without either an emotional sting or an urgent desire to escape the stinging. It feels real and immediate and easily identifiable in this age where depictions of family are almost always expected to be dysfunctional. But the approach does at points yield some odd results.
The underlying feeling between Hennie — in this version very much her mother’s daughter — and wounded war veteran Moe Axelrod (Jay Whittaker) seems like it’s supposed to have a Beatrice and Benedick-type tension, but that gets lost amid all the other sniping. When they bravely run off together, they don’t exactly seem headed for happiness.
Even Ralph’s determination to carry on his grandfather’s hopefulness for the future feels muted at the end. The most convincing epiphany comes when Bessie finally confesses that she too wished to run away, just as her children do now. It’s a slam of clear-headed reality, and it’s powerful.
It’s a pretty fascinating, very different way to deal with the challenge of Odets’ outdated socialism. Here, it’s simply one more dream destined to be stifled by reality. The title “Awake and Sing!” has never seemed more like a necessary cry or an unlikely outcome.