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Theater Review: “Awake and Sing!”

Sandy Campbell and J. Tyler Jones.
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Poor Bessie Berger is just trying to ensure that her family weathers the economic storms of the Depression, but she’s not getting much help from kindly but feckless husband Myron. And the cramped Berger digs include family patriarch Jacob and two adult children as well. 

Set in the Bronx in 1935, themes of financial survival, the search for meaning, connection, self-fulfillment and the American Dream play out in a family of Bronx Jews (plus a boarder or two) in Clifford Odets’ 1935 classic “Awake And Sing!”

Kristianne Kurner directs an excellent production of this startlingly still relevant play through April 16 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.

Money is tight, so Bessie (Sandy Campbell) and Myron (Joe Paulson) have taken on a boarder – Sam Feinschreiber (Tom Steward), who has set his sights on marrying Bessie’s 26-year-old daughter Hennie (Anna Rebeck). Hennie is less than thrilled at this prospect.

Bessie’s 21-year-old son Ralph (J. Tyler Jones) adorably falls in love for the first time but runs afoul of Bessie’s rule to marry rich, or at least richer. He gets advice from Jacob (Eric Poppick).

The only family member who seems financially stable is Bessie’s successful businessman brother Uncle Morty (Tom Deák).

The cast is completed by Moe Axelrod (Max Macke), a veteran who lost a leg in the war (who also has designs on Hennie), and janitor Schlosser (Alex Guzman), whose wife left him with their young daughter, who then ran away. Guzman doubles as guitarist, providing some lovely, soulful music from upstairs.

The spectacular dual-level set designed by Director Kristianne Kurner shows us the Berger living situation. On top are two small rooms separated by an old-style clothesline that gives the feel of place and time. 

The family lives – and the action takes place on – the lower level, which offers a small living room and behind it, a sort of music room from which Caruso can often be heard singing operatic areas. This is Jacob’s doing. 

On the other side of the set is the dining table, where more time seems to be spent than anywhere else. Here the family can relax, eat and argue. All these characters are looking for a better – and meaningful – life, but each defines that in his own way. 

Eric Poppick is ideally cast as Jacob, the moral center of the Berger universe. Jacob is an aging Marxist who gets into frequent political arguments with son Morty, who (much to Jacob’s disgust) maintains that “without a rich man you don’t have a roof over your head.” 

Jacob’s attitude about the meaning of life is this: “If this life leads to a revolution, it’s a good life. Otherwise it’s for nothing.” 

Hennie and Ralph just want to get out on their own.

They will butt heads with  Bessie, who has her own ideas on how and when that should happen for each of them.

Kurner’s direction is flawless, and she is blessed with a uniformly excellent cast.

Kudos, too, for her set design that vividly sets the scene. 

Campbell makes the most of her adopted Bronx/Jewish accent as Bessie, while demonstrating the strength and determination needed to see the family through  hard economic times.

It’s a lovely portrayal.

Jones is charming as young Ralph, first smitten with an unseen girlfriend and later (thanks to his grandpa) inspired to think bigger and change the world.

Rebeck’s Hennie gives us a moving portrait of the young woman likely to be trapped by circumstance.  

Steward provides just the kind of husband most girls dread in Sam, while Macke, who acts and looks more like a tout, may provide another possibility for Hennie.

Deák’s Uncle Morty is around for the political talk, while Paulson gets short shrift (at least from Bessie) as husband Myron.

“Awake And Sing!” is about one family and one time, but the issues are relevant today. Odets exhorts us to act, not react. I’m sure he’d be out on the hustings marching today.

This is apparently the first professional local production of this classic play. I advise you not to miss it.

The details

“Awake and Sing!” plays through April 16, 2017 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St., Carlsbad.

Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (760) 433-3245 or newvillagearts.org