Elina de Santos’ much acclaimed 2015 revival of Awake and Sing! is back at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles and playing through October 2. This wonderfully enjoyable and fascinating production revives much more than just the brilliant text of Clifford Odets’ 1935 play; it also reignites the passion for acting that drove The Group Theatre, where the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski got their first foothold in America, and where at least three of the most influential methods for training actors still in use today were spawned. Every one of these players responds to the entire world of the play with total presence. From the moment we first encounter the Berger clan gathered around their humble dining room table in the Bronx until the story’s poignant last words are spoken, the ensemble exists onstage as a connected unit, each character fully present regardless of the focus of the action.
The history of this production goes back all the way to 1994, when de Santos and three of the actors — Marilyn Fox, Richard Fancy, and Dennis Madden –were all part of an award-winning nine-month run of the play at this same theater. As Bessie Berger, Fox rages against fate and circumstance, alternately wheedling, bullying, and lying to her children in a desperate attempt to protect them, and herself, from a potentially bleak and assuredly uncertain future. It’s the 1930s, and poverty whips through these characters’ lives like a frozen winter gale, alternately pushing them back, and away from one another, and sending them rushing together for some kind of human warmth. At the opposite pole from controlling, bossy Bessie Berger there’s Hennie, her beautiful and confused daughter, played wonderfully well by Melissa Paladino. Along with her younger brother Ralph (James Morosini), Hennie represents the new generation that must find a way to escape their tenement trap or enter into a permanent state of death in life. Santa Barbara’s own Robert Lesser plays Myron, the mild-mannered father figure who must try to pick up the pieces of familial trust that Bessie smashes with such abandon. Lesser is terrific in this role. It’s not just that the hangdog expression with which he emerges from the kitchen in a woman’s flowered apron is priceless; it’s also the way he finds the implicit existential poetry of Myron’s apparent non sequiturs.
Allan Miller’s Jacob Berger delivers some of the night’s most memorable lines, such as when he admonishes Ralph to “remember, a woman insults a man’s soul like no other thing in the whole world,” but that particularly dark observation is hardly representative of the idealism and yearning that he brings to the family’s bitter struggle. When things in the Berger household get truly complicated, as they must, Awake and Sing! is at its best, and in the last of the play’s three acts, liberation of a sort arrives, unexpected and bittersweet, but salutary nonetheless. For those who crave a theater experience that’s alive with possibility, Awake and Sing! at the Odyssey is just the ticket.