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Hard times movingly depicted in 'Awake'

June 24, 2004|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

During the 1930s, playwright Clifford Odets set the prototype for a theater of social reform. Director Simon Levy's solid staging of Odets' second play, "Awake and Sing," for International City Theatre in Long Beach effectively marries the drama's broader themes to its nuanced portrait of struggling lower-class Bronx Jews during the great Depression.

The cast's fine ensemble work is in keeping with the original Group Theatre concept that nurtured Odets' writing. Without emphasizing a particular "star" performance, the company convincingly depicts a tightknit family, quarreling and poking at one another's sore spots yet fiercely loyal.

Levy and his cast are particularly adept at revealing story points through wordless moments, such as the dawning comprehension that clouds the face of the Berger family matriarch, Bessie (Jacqueline Schultz), when she realizes that her unmarried daughter's "flu" is a sign of early pregnancy.

The calculation with which Bessie and her milquetoast husband, Myron (Ira Denmark), engineer the resulting marriage of Hennie (Paige Handler) to a clueless patsy (Sasha Kaminsky) she doesn't love is chilling in its cold expediency. But Bessie and her family are products of hard times in which fair play is a luxury they can't afford. When Grandpa Jacob (Joseph Ruskin) poignantly voices support for the outlaw labor movement, he's dismissed as a nut -- most vehemently by well-off capitalist Uncle Morty (Neil Larson, who softens the role to add depth, but skirts opportunities to lord it over the others).

Schultz's Bessie is appropriately stern and uncompromising, although it isn't until her well-delivered outburst in the final scene that she fully articulates the reason: having to shoulder the desperate burden of keeping the family going. Though there have been glimpses of her sacrifice for the others' welfare all along, more clarity would make her seem less driven by maternal possessiveness in her relentless opposition to son Ralph's (Jamieson Stern) romantic pursuit of an orphan girl with no prospects.

Bessie's tough-mindedness is a trait shared by her lodger, Moe Axelrod (Tom Astor), a bitter disabled veteran who harbors a closely guarded love for Hennie. Unfortunately, Handler's reading of Hennie as timid victim limits the romantic sparks between them and makes her final choice more about gaining self-confidence than the moral conflict it entails.

The venue's thrust stage brings the action closer to the audience, but it presents challenges not completely overcome by Don Llewellyn's set -- its spacious rooms undercut the sense of a cramped tenement in which the Bergers are imprisoned. And while the production doesn't ignite as often as it could, it consistently smolders with urgency.

It wasn't so long ago that Odets' impassioned humanism, with its pitches to the social conscience, had come to seem something of an artifact -- a heavy-handed overstatement of the obvious in a great society that had eventually embraced those ideals in principle, if not always in practice. The resurgence of interest in Odets' dramas says a lot about our time and about values that can no longer be taken for granted.


`Awake and Sing'

Where: International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Dark July 4.

Ends: July 11

Price: $30 to $38

Info: (562) 436-4610

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

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