Finding Hope in the Depression

Awake and Sing (Group Rep)userpic=dramamasksI had set aside this weekend for Carrie – The Musical. Alas, Transfer Theatre Group, the folks putting on the revival, moved it to 2014. Further, my wife was out of town at a quilt show. This left me alone on a weekend with no scheduled theatre — a situation that could not remain. I looked on Goldstar to see what looked interesting, and found four shows: an all-female version of “Hamlet” at the Odyssey, the classic “Waiting for Godot” at the Stella Adler, the depression-era drama Awake and Sing” at the Group Rep, and a new drama Strange Disappearance of Bees” at the Raven Playhouse. I asked on Facebook, and received recommendations only for Godot and Awake and Sing. As Godot is around regularly, I decided on Awake and Sing at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) in North Hollywood.

Awake and Sing” was written by Clifford Odets in 1932, and first produced professionally in 1935. It is generally regarded as his masterpiece, although he had his hand in a number of other stories for the screen and stage. It tells the story of the multigenerational Berger family in the Bronx during the depression: grandfather Jacob, mother and father Bessie and Myron, and children Ralph and Hennie. The times are hard, and the family is scraping by on the combined incomes of Bessie, Myron, and Ralph. The play primarily tells the story of Ralph and Hennie (at least these are the characters that achieve transformations over the course of the story), although the central character and driving force is Bessie, the mother.

Bessie is the embodiment of a child of immigrants and a child of the American dream: she demands that her children marry well and better than her, and by well, she means “to someone with means”. Love has no place in the equation. When Hennie discovers she is pregnant from a one-night stand with an unknown man, Bessie “arranges” a marriage with a recent immigrant who has a steady job and prospects, Sam Feinschreiber. Never mind that Hennie doesn’t love him or want him. This marriage particularly annoys the family friend, Moe Axelrod. Axelrod has prospects, drive, and style, but was injured in WWI (losing his leg) and his money comes from his veteran’s pension. He loves Hennie, but she wants nothing to do with him due to his injury. Ralph is also being directed in life by Bessie — he works part-time for his uncle, Morty, in the rag trade. He has a girl, Blanche, who is an orphan and has no income, and the family (read Bessie) wants him to have nothing to do with her — he should find someone who has income and a family that can support them. Observing all of these proceedings is Jacob, the grandfather. Jacob, like Odets at the time, is very left leaning and is constantly citing pro-union and Marxist philosphy. His passion is Caruso. He is constantly pushing Ralph to be a success and make something of his life while he’s young  — something he was never able to to do; he interacts less with Hennie. In fact, he has taken out  a life insurance policy naming Ralph as his beneficiary — $3,000 — that Bessie does not know about.

The play takes place in three acts. In the first act, we meet the family and the main characters, and learn of both Hennie and Ralph’s situations. We can see how they are chafing under Bessie’s role in the family, but they are powerless to override her. In the second act the problems of their situations become more acute. We see how Hennie is stuck in a marriage she doesn’t want — she’s married to a man who loves her, but whom she detests. As for Ralph, he’s in love with a girl that Bessie is pushing away, and stuck in a life that is focused on scraping the family by, not improving his lot. As the second act ends, Jacob rails against this situation and its futility, and Bessie reacts by yelling at him, belittling him, and destroying his beloved records. Jacob takes the family dog for a walk on the roof, and a little while later, is reported to have slipped and fallen off the roof and died. The final act deals with the aftermath of this death. Morty and Bessie have “arranged” for the insurance man to come over to pay them the money, but Ralph believes it was a suicide. Moe informs Ralph that the policy was in Ralph’s name, and claims to have a note showing it was suicide (which stops Morty and Bessie from going after the insurance man). Moe — and the memory of Jacob’s ranting — convince both Ralph and Hennie to “awake and sing”. Hennie decides to leave her husband and run off with Moe (the man she really loved), and Ralph decides that he is going to make of his life what he wants it to be, and that he will find success on his own terms.

The performances in this production were very strong — owing both to the skills of the actors and the strength of the directoral hand of Larry Eisenberg (FB) [assisted by Lloyd Pedersen]. As I’ve written before, I have a hard time telling where the actor stops and the director begins (or is it vice-verse?). That was certainly true here — the little nuances of the performances and way the characters behave make this family come alive and you really can’t see the directoral effect. This a good thing and makes the performances appear realistic [the same thing is true for film, by the way… if you find yourself watching the direction and cinematography, someone did something wrong].

Speaking of the performances… and the performers themselves. As Bessie Berger, Michele Bernath (FB) is a little dynamo driving the show. I’ve known women like the character she portrayed (my mother was one), pulling the strings for her family so they succeed, and attacking those who get in her way. Bernath portrayed this well, and exuded power and control. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t like her character (hitting too close to home), and that shows the excellence of her performance. Her husband, Myron Berger, was played by Patrick Burke/FB. Burke captured the milquetoast nature of Myron well — someone who has been bullied by his spouse but still strives to see the good in everything and everyone.

I was more taken by the actors playing the children: Christine Joëlle (FB) as Hennie Berger and Troy Whitaker (FB) as Ralph Berger. Joëlle’s take on Hennie was great: reserved, strong, and portraying an attitude that she just didn’t want to be in that house, but also didn’t want to be stuck in a marriage on anyone’s terms other than her own. Alas, the unexpected pregnancy allowed Bessie to bully her into marriage, and she just wanted out. She conveyed this in a wonderful and compelling way and was just fund to watch. Whitaker’s Ralph was also very strong — especially when you consider that he’s just a senior at CSUN — capturing the anger and potential of youth very well. You believed that he was in love; you believed that he wanted more from life; you believed that he cared about these people.

Also in strong main positions were Stan Mazin (FB) as Jacob Berger and Daniel Kaemon as Moe Axelrod. Mazin’s Berger could have used perhaps a little more accent to show his background, but portrayed the passion of his character for his ideals well (and also the defeat of the character for his failures in life). Mazin portrayed Jacob in a way that you could see he desperately wanted his grandchildren to have the success that he never had — but on their terms — and that he wasn’t too happy with how his children Bessie and Morty turned out. Kaemon’s Axelrod was perfect — he had a strong façade of confidence and bravado, but you could see that underneath he was just smitten with Hennie. He captured the pain of the bad leg well and grabbed your focus through his performance.

Rounding out the cast were Robert Gallo (FB) as Uncle Morty, Marcos Cohen (FB) as Sam Feinschreiber, Edgar Mastin as Schlosser, and Amanda as Tootsie.  Gallo’s Morty was strong and captured the man focused on his business and money well, although there were a few line problems. Cohen captured the immigrant well, and did a great job of portraying the pain of his relationship with Hennie. Mastin’s character, Schlosser, was the building concierge and only had a small role. Even smaller was the role of Amanda as Tootsie, the dog, although she had the best biography of all in the program. I’m glad she got past her problems with alcohol dependence and Kibbles ‘n’ Bits abuse.

Turning to the technical. Chris Winfield (FB)’s set design captured the depression era well — the single main room, the few rooms on the side, with enough attention to detail that what one saw through the doors was part of the set as well. This was supported by the excellent props of Kellie B. Malone/FB, assisted by Xander Bennett. I particularly noted the attention to detail on the props, making sure that the papers and other artifacts appeared to be from the correct era. The sound design was by Steve Shaw/FB, and was very effective. I particularly noted the quality of the sound effects as well as their directionality — they sounded like where they should be spatially. That’s a nice attention to detail. The lighting was designed by Kim Smith (FB) and did a great job of establishing mood without being noticeable. Jazmin Lopez/FB was the stage manager and light board operator, and Zachary Norman McKnight/FB operated the sound board. Brian Danner (FB) was listed as the fight choreographer, although I didn’t particularly notice any swords on stage :-). Awake and Sing was produced by Drina Durazo (FB) for The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB).

Awake and Sing” continues at The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB) through November 3, 2013, and is well worth watching. Tickets are available through OvationTix, and discount tickets may be available on Goldstar. It is currently in repertory with “Stories About Old Days” by Bill Harris, which runs through October 27, 2013. The next production at The Group Rep is the world premier of “Mom’s Gift“, running December 6, 2013 through January 19, 2014.

One other word on The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (FB). Looking at their season brochure and looking at the quality of the set and production, this seems to be another theatre like REP East (FB). This means that this is a theatre we’ll definately watch — although our subscription book is currently full, it looks like a theatre that could be fun to subscribe to. Those in the NoHo area should definitely look into this company — they are priced well and appear to do a great job.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  October ends with the Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) production of “Kiss Me Kate” (October 26). November starts with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at Actors Rep of Simi (FB). That will be followed by a visit with Thomas the Tank Engine when we volunteer at OERM over Veterans Day.  The third week will be theatre-ish, as we attend ARTS’s Nottingham Village (FB) (a one-weekend ren-faire-ish market — tickets are now on sale), as well as seeing the Trollplayers (FB) production of Steven Schwartz’s Children of Eden” (which runs November 8-17) [Trollplayers is the community theatre group at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge]. That weekend will also bring a release party for a Kickstarted-CD by Big Daddy. The weekend before Thanksgiving is also very busy with three shows: Tom Paxton (FB) in concert at McCabes Santa Monica (FB) on Friday; “Play It Again Sam” at REP East (FB) on Saturday, and the rescheduled “Miracle on S. Division Street” at the Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday. Thanksgiving weekend is currently open, as is much of December (December is due to the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC) in New Orleans, which has me out of two the first two weekends in December… but has me wondering about New Orleans theatre), but should bring “The Little Mermaid” at Nobel Middle School, and “Peter and the Starcatcher” at The Ahmanson Theatre. Looking into January…. nothing is currently scheduled, but it will likely bring “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change“, which is the first show of the REP East (FB) season, running 1/17 through 2/15/2014. Of course, we look forward to seeing you at ACSAC for the wonderful training opportunities there. As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.


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