'Awake' and Zing

Adam Green and Robert Prosky in Arena Stage's revival of
Adam Green and Robert Prosky in Arena Stage's revival of "Awake and Sing!," directed by Arena co-founder Zelda Fichandler. (By Scott Suchman -- Arena Stage)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

What a peachy gesture by Arena Stage, inviting Zelda Fichandler back for another session in her old, beloved playground. Her return to the director's seat for a finely tuned revival of Clifford Odets's Depression-era "Awake and Sing!" is a significant occasion: Arena's own version of a motivational seminar.

You're reminded here, in Fichandler's artful, truthful approach to a neglected American classic, of the role she has played in spreading the gospel of art and truth on the stage. Any Arena regular -- or student of theater -- knows Fichandler, Arena's co-founder, as one of the catalyzing figures in the postwar rise of American drama. Her visit is a toast to those glory days, when the company was a leader of a theater movement gaining steam across the nation, in an age when serious plays seemed to radiate a confidence in their own bright future.

It so happens that "Awake and Sing!" embodies a similar brand of optimism, albeit from a slightly earlier time: The 1935 play launched Odets as a major writer and established the Group Theatre, producer of Odets's work, as a creative force. The ensemble that Fichandler has gathered on the Kreeger stage taps forthrightly into the restless rhythms of Odets's generational study of a cranky Jewish family in the Bronx that is unable to gain a firm financial foothold -- or to leave one another in peace.

"Awake and Sing!" is not a play that directs itself. It's the story of an insular household, one that reveals its turmoil in eddies rather than floods. Although the stylized New York lingo often crackles, it can come across as too blatantly poetic, and characters such as the Marxist grandfather, Jacob -- played with unassuming warmth by Robert Prosky -- can seem at times heavy-handed, mere mouthpieces for the author's own agendas.

Indeed, the late Harold Clurman, the renowned Group Theatre director who staged the original production, recalled his uncertainty about the assignment. He once wrote of consulting a couple of colleagues about "Awake and Sing!" One told him the play was a comedy. The other said it was a tragedy.

Of course, it is both, and both aspects are brought to the fore in Fichandler's capable production. The piece achieves the challenging goal of seeming entirely of its period. Many in the cast display an affinity for the time and place, almost as if they themselves listened to the wireless, voted for FDR or rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Actually, the Bergers of the Bronx most likely would have been Yankee fans.) Andromache Chalfant's design of the Berger apartment is on the money, down to the portraits of the family's immigrant forebears on the dining room table. Linda Cho's costumes add to the atmospheric authenticity.

The notion, too, of the Bergers as a microcosm of a turbulent national drama is reinforced in an abstract element of the set: At the edge of the stage are piled pieces of furniture and family paintings and albums from the old country -- flotsam, if you will, from the story of immigration.

As anyone knows who lived through it, or knows someone who did, the Depression left lifelong scars. "Awake and Sing!" offers a front-row seat on the insecurities of the age, and the wedges it drove into families. Yet the problems of Odets's characters can't be attributed to any one cause, and this fact gives the play more depth. The Bergers' boarder, Moe Axelrod (Adam Dannheisser), for instance, is an embittered veteran who lost a leg and all of his illusions in World War I. And privation alone cannot explain the tyrannical approach to motherhood practiced by Bessie (Jana Robbins), who casts an overprotective pall over her unhappy daughter, Hennie (Miriam Silverman), and restive son, Ralph (Adam Green).

It is Ralph, the play's youngest character, on whom Odets showers his optimism. The most fervent arc of the piece is the passing of the torch of idealism from Prosky's Jacob to Ralph, who begins the evening bemoaning his sorry lot: "Where's the advancement down the place? Work like crazy! Think they see it? You'd drop dead first." By play's end, however, he's absorbed the lessons Jacob has imparted. "Maybe," Ralph says, in one of the work's more memorable lines, "we'll fix it so life won't be printed on dollar bills."

Virtually everyone draws an incisive portrait here. The actor who seems to be having the toughest time is Richard J. Canzano, playing Sam Feinschreiber, the hapless greenhorn who's married off to Hennie out of expedience rather than love. Canzano's accent is only marginally Eastern European, and he plays the clown way too broadly.

Robbins, on the other hand, is a model of tension under glass as Bessie, and Steve Routman's turn as Bessie's meeker-than-milquetoast husband, Myron, is so gloriously mouselike you wait for the whiskers to sprout. Silverman's Hennie offers the gratifying idea of a hard shell ready to crack, and Dannheisser spits his lines out smartly: the wounded soul masquerading as a wiseguy. The strong scenes between Prosky and Green, meanwhile, help to give Odets's story its inspirational core.

This "Awake and Sing!" invites an intriguing merger of the spirits of a pioneering dramatist and a visionary director. Playwriting and playmaking are not the dynamic forces in American culture they were in the heydays of either Odets or Fichandler. How right, though, for Arena to set the table for a powerful taste of what was.

Awake and Sing! by Clifford Odets. Directed by Zelda Fichandler. Set, Andromache Chalfant; costumes, Linda Cho; lighting, Allen Lee Hughes; sound, Marc Gwinn; hair and wigs, Jon Aitchison; dialects, Deborah Hecht. With Brian Reddy, Hugh Nees. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through March 5 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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