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A CurtainUp Review
Awake and Sing!
By Charles Wright

We don't want life printed on dollar bills, Mom.— Ralph

So go out and change the world if you don't like it.— Bessie

RALPH: I will! And why? ‘Cause life's different in my head. Gimme the earth in two hands. I'm strong.
— Ralph
Mia Katigbak and Alok Tewari as Bessie and Jacob (Photo: William P. Steele)
Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing!, the most enduring play produced by the innovative Group Theatre, may be the most distinguished American drama about life in the Great Depression. It arrived on Broadway in 1935, when the United States was trudging up a steep, tortuous path toward economic recovery. With its young protagonist's cri de coeur about not wanting "life printed on dollar bills," Awake and Sing! captures the mood of Depression era Americans disheartened by privation yet holding out against spiritual depletion.

The Public Theater is currently host to a revival of the play's production by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO) and directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, Artistic Associate of the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. This fine production was seen briefly at Walker Space in 2013.

Brown-Fried and his capable cast play Odets' script as written, without any concessions to the Asian heritage of the actors. All nine members of the ensemble are adept at the cadence and argot of 1930s New York. They make proletarian poetry of Odets' often heartrending dialogue.

Awake and Sing! concerns the hardscrabble life of the Bergers, a Jewish family in the Bronx. The de facto head of the household is Bessie (Mia Katigbak), whose maternal affection is obscured by her peevish, domineering attitude to son Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider) and daughter Hennie (Teresa Avia Lim).

Worn down by financial hardship and an unsatisfying marriage, Bessie is a scourge at times to her family. She's chronically impatient with Myron (Henry Yuk), the feckless husband (whom Odets describes as "a born follower"), claiming self-righteously that she has been "not only the mother, but also the father" to their children. She belittles Jacob (Alok Tewari), her aging father, deriding his Marxist views and treating him more as a boarder than paterfamilias.

In an admirably nuanced performance, Katigbak steers clear of stereotype, finding what's beneficent as well as sinister in Bessie's attempts to control her children. There's brutality in her insistence that Hennie make a marriage of convenience to hide an inconvenient pregnancy; there's extreme selfishness in her attempts to undermine Ralph's romance with a girl she judges inappropriate. But Katigback finds other, credible motivations — love, for instance, and maternal anxiety — in the character's least admirable actions.

Odets' other characters, like the Bergers, are struggling to make ends meet, maintain self-respect, and solve the puzzle of their desperate times. All are embodied sensitively and believably by the NAATCO cast: Moe (Sanjit De Silva), the Berger's boarder, whose outlook is jaundiced from regret; Bessie's brother Morty (James Saito), made callous by success; Sam (David Shih), the unwitting schmo who marries Hennie and provides a home for the baby he assumes is his; and Schlosser (Mel Duane Gionson), the tenement janitor who brings news of a crucial incident off-stage.

In the eight decades since its premiere, Awake and Sing! has been frequently revived in New York. Nine years ago, Lincoln Center Theater presented it at the Belasco Theatre, directed by Bartlett Sher, with a starry, powerhouse cast that featured Zoe Wannamaker as Bessie and Pablo Schreiber as Ralph.. (Curtainup's review ). That 2006 staging included an intricate, towering stage design by Michael Yeargan, with walls that disappeared in stages as the play progressed and the characters' relationships frayed.

Yeargan's conceit of vanishing walls, evocative as it may have been, gave the production a portentousness somewhat at odds with Odets' lyrical tale of little men and women. And the capaciousness of the Broadway house added a sense of excessive scale. In the Public's modest-sized Susan Shiva Theater, Brown-Fried's current staging, with audience on two sides of the playing area and close to the action, suits admirably the emotional content of the text and the unprepossessing world of the Bergers.

Odets' dark original version of Awake and Sing! was titled I Got the Blues. The nine inspired actors of the NAATCO ensemble blend, in appropriate measure, the sorrow, anger, and disappointment of that early draft and the hope and optimism that Odets added to the final script. That final version, with its rich mix of emotional hues, turned out to be the foundation of one of the most important playwriting careers of the 20th century.

Awake and Sing!
Written by Clifford Odets
Director: Stephen Brown-Fried
Cast: Sanjit De Silva (Moe Axelrod), Mel Duane Gionson (Schlosser), Mia Katigbak (Bessie Berger), Teresa Avia Lim (Hennie Berger), James Saito (Uncle Morty), Jon Norman Schneider (Ralph), David Shih (Sam Feinschreiber), Henry Yuk (Myron Berger), and Lulu (Tootsie)
Scenic Design: Anshuman Bhatia
Costume Design: Alexae Visel
Lighting Design: Gina Scherr
Sound Design: Toby Algya
Stage Manager: Danielle Buccino
Running Time: Two hours, 15 minutes, including two intermissions
Produced by NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company, Inc.), presented by The Public Theater
The Public Theater/Shiva Theater, 425 Lafeyette Street
From 7/06/15; opening 7/13/15; closing 8/08/15
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a July 9th press performance
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