Some specifics, of course, have staled since 1935: the idea of Soviet Russia as a society ours should emulate, or that a premarital pregnancy would necessitate a family conspiracy, or that it takes a clean-spirited young man to dare to seize hold of this world and scrape the shit off of it. But there’s still great, fresh heart in Clifford Odets’s Awake & Sing!, just as there’s still heart inside every sap or dreamer itching for something grander than dollar-mad American normalcy. It’s especially fresh in the new revival from National Asian American Theatre Company at Walkerspace, directed with precise raucousness by Stephen Fried.
Heart is what Odets has always offered in greater abundance than the other canonized titans—that impulse to better the lives of anyone who sees the plays, even at the expense of some niceties of psychology or storytelling. In this production, the inner lives of Odets’s people compel as much as their out-loud declarations of self, done in the playwright’s spit-polished, bell-ringing, streets-meet-the-good-book vernacular. Who else’s characters toss out beauts like “Christ, you coulda had a guy with some guts instead of a cluck stands around boilin’ baby nipples”? Or “A silence of death was on the city and little babies got no milk”?
Scenic designer Anshuman Bhatia presses us right up against the lives of the Bergers, Bronx Jews facing the worst years of the Depression. There’s no escaping their too-small apartment, not even for us—any audience member dashing for the restrooms would have to cross through the dim parlor. So everyone is subject to the mothering of Bessie (Mia Katigbak), who rules over her adult kids, Ralph (Jon Norman Schneider) and Hennie (Teresa Avia Lim), her ineffectual husband, Myron (smilin’ Henry Yuk), and her Marx-minded father, Jacob (Alok Tewari), given to filling the already noisy kitchen with lyric speeches on social justice.
A knowable monster, Katigbak’s Bessie stirs audience empathy even as she coldly dictates every aspect of her children’s lives, right down to their romances. She’s less like a dictator than a factory’s efficiency expert, the one who sees the most expedient way to handle any crisis. But Ralph and Hennie yearn for more than efficiency. At first, Ralph hungers for material goods, but after being ground through Odets’s plot—and roused by Jacob’s lectures—the boy aspires to something nobler. Schneider, a guileless marvel, makes Ralph’s idealistic fervor seem personal, inevitable, like the lighting of a wick we’ve seen there all along.
Meanwhile, Hennie finds herself with a husband (David Shih) and child too early in her life. She suppresses her attraction for slick war hero Moe (Sanjit De Silva, all devilish charisma), alternating between sulks and sharp-elbowed wisecracks. Lim is adept at both and terrifically moving.
The action is cramped and bumptious but staged with impressive clarity. Twice Ralph breaks down just feet away from other family members, who mostly carry on as if it’s not happening. Packed in there with them, audiences see his dilemma laid bare. Not only does he have no place to go, he has no place to discover who he is. “Don’t soft-soap me all of a sudden,” he snaps at his father, who attempts to commiserate.
That tender tough talk remains a pleasure throughout. It’s a means of desperate definition for the Bergers, their chatter—their insults, their dreams—their one means of claiming some space in their world and in our time.