AWAKE AND SING at SCTC: Idealism vs Realism – Odets Style

by Ruth K. Brown
Daniel Tobin,Sy Kover and Jason Cutts in AWAKE AND SING at South Camden Theatre Company. (Photo credit: Robert Bingaman)

Daniel Tobin,Sy Kover and Jason Cutts in AWAKE AND SING at South Camden Theatre Company. (Photo credit: Robert Bingaman)

South Camden Theatre Company (SCTC) has an established and ingrained intention to bring little known theatre back to the people. With earlier efforts like EXORCISM, an early one act by Eugene O’Neill and WAITING FOR LEFTY, a piece of agit-prop written by Clifford Odets, SCTC challenges their audience to move outside of their complacency and to face how society got “here” … wherever “here” is.

The original 1935 production of the Odets melodrama, AWAKE AND SING, was his first full length play to reach Broadway. Odets was writing AWAKE AND SING during the height of American melodramatic imagination. The characters are large bordering on stereotypes as they work through the Depression-era vagaries of their lives. Director Christopher “Jumbo” Schimpf skillfully maneuvers his ensemble cast through the potential theatrical pitfalls of “hardboiled” language bordering to a current ear on corny and loudly passionate situations presented with little accompanying intellect. The melodrama is evident because Odets is valuing emotion over thought in a domestic scene as opposed to the societal catastrophes he is best known for cataloging. While the Jewish Berger family in AWAKE AND SING is bombarded with financial, social and familial difficulties, Odets brings the audience a twisted but happy ending. This happy ending is a very American feel to what in Europe would have been dealt with more negatively.

Daniel Tobin, Dan Hickey, Kris Andrews and Sy Kover. (Photo credit: Robert Bingaman).

Daniel Tobin, Dan Hickey, Kris Andrews and Sy Kover. (Photo credit: Robert Bingaman).

Schimpf and Robert Bingaman (Scenic Design) placed the cast on a workable, well appointed two room set. Even though the SCTC stage area is not large, the rooms could use more of the claustrophobic feeling of a New York tenement. This sense of continuous close encounters and no privacy is essential to support the need for escape in the two Berger children which is so evident in son, Ralph (played by Daniel J. Tobin), and daughter, Henny (played by Fleece). These early 20’s young adults think only of leaving and finding a life for themselves from their first moments on stage. Both actors convey their emotions bitterly and even caustically at times.

Now before this play appears to be both humorless and tragic, Odets is skillful at bringing in humor in the face of adversity. The character of Moe Axelrod (played with gangster-like intensity by Jason Cutts) provides the almost Damon Runyon mispronunciations and early immigrant references with the straight-faced delivery necessary to make the audience laugh in spite of itself. While that is one aspect of Axelrod, Cutts is less successful when he tries to convey his personal feelings to Henny. Grandfather Jacob, Sy Kover, with arguably the best grasp of the Jewish dialect, portrays a man with his own hopes for his family while clearly seeing what is preventing their realization. Odets uses Kover to bring the news of the day into AWAKE AND SING. In conversations with Ralph and Moe, Jacob spouts the socialistic rhetoric of the day trying to persuade Ralph to be strong and independent and Moe that individual success can overcome government horrors and miscalculations.

Dan Hickey, as Myron Berger, capably fills the role of the self-absorbed family father simply overwhelmed by the power and authority of his wife, Bessie (played by Kris Andrews). Andrews has a very difficult role as Bessie should not only be shown as shrewish but also as someone who is struggling with her own life clinging to the unrealized ideals and expectations from her youth. Andrews comes across as strident at times but excels in areas where she is justifying family, and particularly, her children’s actions. Steve Gleich portrays Uncle Morty with panache, enthusiasm and manipulative glee as his interactions with the family do not so much help as hinder the family struggles which are clearly NOT his struggles.

While an ensemble cast working together is like a well-oiled machine, the smaller but ably played roles of Sam (Geoff Bruen) and Schlosser (George Spelvin) are perfect to move the plot along and to add to the sense of place and time.

AWAKE AND SING is not your typical twenty-first century play about family life. It is a picture of a time gone showing the kinds of struggles that continue to occur today and are overcome in various ways to make society what it is today and moving forward. Based upon the frequent revivals of this piece done around the country, it seems necessary that these struggles NOT be forgotten. Thank you, SCTC, for bringing thought back to the theatre community.

Written by Clifford Odets
Directed by Christopher “Jumbo” Schimpf
February 15 – March 3, 2013
Waterfront South Theatre
South Camden Theatre Company
400 Jasper Street
Camden, NJ 08104
Box Office: 866-811-4111

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