After five months, Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing” is still going strong at the Odyssey: The well-oiled play from the 1930s is realized by a superb cast under the gifted direction of Elina deSantos.
Despite its feel-good title, “Awake and Sing” is a moody, well-plotted examination of a Depression-era Jewish family whose matriarch, Bessie (Marilyn Fox), rules with an iron attitude.
Her 22-year-old son, Ralph (Karl Bury), sleeps out in the living room and dreams of a better life. Ralph’s unmarried older sister, Hennie, eschews the attention of one-legged war veteran Moe Axelrod (Steve Vinovich). But when Bessie discovers Hennie is pregnant, she forces her daughter to marry family friend and immigrant Sam (John Cirigliano), who’s easily duped into believing the child is his.
Bessie’s milquetoast husband, Myron (Harry Herman), never protests Bessie’s decisions. Grandfather Jacob (Jack Axelrod) does, but Bessie puts him and his Marxist leanings down. Ralph just has to get out.
In “Sing,” the rich people, like clothier Uncle Morty (Matt Gottlieb), keep their laborers in sweatshop conditions. The working poor, like the rest of the family, find their toil lets them barely get by.
The play endures because its examination of the breakdown of the family unit in the face of modern social pressures is just as true today, if not more so, as when it premiered in 1935 under Harold Clurman’s direction. Odets puts powerful forces to work — society, family, love and need — and peppers them with flashes of humor.
Director deSantos balances the forces well, never overplaying one family member, but rather rubbing them together in a tenement and watching them burn.
The cast glows. Fox gives Bessie such will that she becomes a true terror. Bessie’s most able adversary is Axelrod, whose motto is, “I don’t squirm for dames.” Vinovich, in a steamroller characterization the exact opposite from his lead perf in Pasadena Playhouse’s “The Foreigner” last year, ably allows the audience to see him squirm inside for Hennie.
With a different attitude, grandfather’s leftist polemics could sound like the author’s soapbox, but Axelrod shows him as a weakened man who cannot fight his daughter. He only wants a better world for his grandson.
Kurt Wahlner’s set brings to life the cramped Bronx tenement. Doc Ballard’s lighting colors it well, as does the costume design by Audrey Eisner and set decoration by Lynne Pope.