The legendary Zelda is back. Tony Award-winning “godmother of D.C. theatre” and co-founder of Arena Stage Zelda Fichandler makes her homecoming to the nation’s capital after nearly 10 years, with her production of Clifford Odets’ depression-era classic Awake and Sing!
It’s 1935, and the Bergers are a Jewish family living in the Bronx, clinging to the old world amid the rapid disintegration of the new. The play is about ambitions and dreams, starkly contrasted against the horrible realism of the life its characters are living.
Ralph Berger (Adam Green) longs to make something of himself. He is surrounded by powerless men: his father Myron (Steve Routman), who is controlled by his overbearing wife (Jana Robbins); Moe Axelrod (Adam Dannheisser), the family friend and bookie who lost his leg in the war; and Jacob (Robert Prosky), a former Russian socialist who came to America only to be a barber and dog walker. But Ralph himself is powerless, tied down to his family until he can earn enough money to live on his own – a tough thing to do in a town where people are killing themselves daily out of desperation.
Ralph’s sister Hennie (Miriam Silverman) also has dreams. Her family wants to get her married, but she has a life of her own. When she finds herself pregnant, she becomes tied down to her family, stuck in an unhappy marriage and slowly turning into her mother. Someway, somehow, they have to escape these fates.
The casting of the play is suitable. Jana Robbins especially puts on an exceptional performance as matriarch Bessie Berger. Brian Reddy – the “high talker” from the TV show Seinfeld – plays Uncle Morty, the conniving businessman.
Prosky and Green have great chemistry onstage; their roles seem to have come at the right time for them. Prosky, a seasoned performer, is the source of wisdom. At times he sounds almost like Yoda with his accent, but it sounds strangely appropriate coming from him. Green plays the idealist – his is a young actor and Awake and Sing! marks his debut at Arena Stage. He speaks emphatically, like he is preaching from atop a platform, much like Jacob once did.
There is a tangible connection between the two: Jacob sees himself in Ralph, and sees his future playing out before his eyes. There are moments between the two of them where it seems there’s something greater going on than what’s playing out on stage. It’s moments like these where Awake and Sing! shines, where you really believe when Ralph says, “Life isn’t written on dollar bills.”
Clifford Odets is not the most well-known playwright and Awake and Sing! is not the most-performed of his plays. It attracts an audience of the devoted, the connoisseurs. The production deserves more recognition than it gets. This is American theater at its best, standing up alongside greats such as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Fichandler brings something to life in Odets’ words that gets to the heart of why, even when the world is crashing down around you, there’s always room to dream of something more.
“Awake and Sing!” will be at Arena Stage until March 5. Tickets range from $46-$51 and are available at the theater’s Web site, www.arenastage.org.