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Monday, 25 April 2011 22:49

Depression blues

Written by Bob Wilcox
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If I were writing this review five years ago, I might refer to Awake and Sing! as a strong but dated piece of theatre. After all, we'd solved all those problems that caused the Great Depression, and we'd arranged things so it would never happen again.

Now we call it the Great Recession instead of the Great Depression Two, but many young people today feel the aching frustration of Ralph Berger, the son in Clifford Odets' grim and grimly funny picture of the Bronx, U.S.A., in 1935. Ralph works in a dead-end, menial job and sleeps on a couch in the living room of the family's apartment. He brightens with hope when he thinks of his girlfriend and when he hears the airmail plane to Boston flying overhead – that great American hope that technology will rescue us. Aaron Orion Baker shows us both sides of Ralph, mostly the side that is ground down, because that's his life; but also the transformation in a ray of hope.

Baker joins a cast that, under Steve Woolf's direction, brings the whole Berger family to vivid life. At the center of that family is Bessie Berger, a woman grievously injured by life even before the Depression brought the shabby gentility of near-poverty to her and hers, though Odets never spells out the specific injuries. Bessie is a frightening force of nature in the hands of St. Louis newcomer Elizabeth Ann Townsend.

Her husband Myron follows along, more or less contentedly, in a finely tuned performance by Gary Wayne Barker. Bessie's father Jacob rejoices in his Marxist beliefs, now that capitalism has collapsed as Marx said it would. In Bobby Miller's richly human performance, Jacob tries to shelter his grandson Ralph from the broken world – especially from his daughter, Ralph's mother – and wants to help his grandson find a life that is not "printed on dollar bills."

Bessie and Myron's daughter Hennie is a bright, restless young woman who gets into the kind of trouble bright, restless young women sometimes get into. She submits to a hastily arranged marriage with a recent immigrant, though her heart has always belonged to Moe Axelrod, World War One hero and amputee and some kind of petty racketeer. Julie Layton and Jason Cannon electrify the stage as the lovers, and Jordan Reinwald finds the integrity in Hennie's pitiable husband. Jerry Vogel captures the odd shadings in the character of Bessie's brother Morty, who's grown rich in the fabric trade but offers minimal help to his relatives. And Terry Meddows, never a small actor even in a small part, looks in a couple of times as the apartment building's maintenance man.

Set designer Scott C. Neale has created a marvel of detailed realism, right down to the gas meter on the wall. Garth Dunbar's costumes show that the Berger women have an eye for style even in hard times. Hans Fredrickson lights the stage naturally, and Noah Thomas provides the sounds of the period.

The work of a young playwright, Awake and Sing! has its raw edges. But Odets' passion for his people and for the theatre and his ear for the poetry of the Bronx vernacular make this a gem of the American theatre. So is the New Jewish Theatre's production.

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