It has been 80 years since the Group Theatre premiered Clifford Odets' first full-length play, 'Awake and Sing!,' a family drama set in a Bronx apartment during the Great Depression. The critical success in 1935 bolstered both the playwright and the company's reputation for creating socially conscious, character driven works under the then nouveau Stanislavski method of acting. Although the Group Theatre lasted only a decade and later Odets would eventually stand trial at the HCUA (House Committee on Un-American Activities) for joining the Communist party, tarnishing his standing among Hollywood's elite, (many of these former members of the Group Theatre), Odets' 'Awake and Sing!' has remained in the repertoire of great American plays.
In Los Angeles, another milestone has passed, and with it, a revival of not only Odets' gripping tragicomedy, but of director Elina de Santos and many of the original cast members themselves in the 20th anniversary of the smash hit production at the Odyssey. From this original staging two artists stood out, cementing their own reputations in L.A.: de Santos and Marilyn Fox, esteemed actress and Artistic Director of Pacific Coast Repertory in Venice. It seems for anyone with the right vision and chutzpah, Odets, (buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale), is a career-maker all these years later....
The tantamount success of 'Awake and Sing!' at the Odyssey two decades ago has still left an indelible impression on those who were here during its inception. From local artistic directors to critics, generally a who's who would pepper this article from someone who had just graduated high school in Texas at the time. "No, I didn't see it," was my response whenever questioned. Strangely enough, the mention of this came up in conversations quite a bit. I had missed out on something significant, (no fault of my own), but the pitying, "Ooohhh's and awww's…wow…that's too bad," was enough to make me aware I not only had catching up to do as a reviewer in L.A., but a part of local theater history remained a gap, almost a line in the sand as to who I was when I was just burgeoning onto the field as a rookie.
I tried valiantly to make up for lost time by reviewing A Noise Within's lovely production of 'Awake and Sing!' in 2010. No matter. I didn't see the one that really counted. Well, phooey!
It's extremely rare when a production receives an anniversary revival or any revival in the same theater, with most of the same cast and director. Atypical is the word that springs to mind.
And, yet, here was my chance. I didn't spring to attention when the press release came out. 'Awake and Sing!' is a laudable well-made play, but with two intermissions in our current zeitgeist of 90 minutes: keep it lean and keen, I wasn't beating down the box office window with my fists. I was reticent. What if it wasn't as good? What if it didn't impress me? What if's populated my hesitancy until one question sprang to mind: what if you can't ever go back?
For a myriad of serendipitous reasons, I found myself seated among those who had already sat in the Odyssey for 'Awake and Sing!' 20 years ago. I was among the well-versed and (smugly) knowledgeable. They had zero concerns unlike me who fretted but smiled grimly. How good/amazing/wonderful/memorable could this particular production really be, and could it live up to the hype all these years later? I was nervous, but my personal affableness to the play itself and the cast names gave me the confidence to see it with fresh eyes and perspective.
Here's the bottom line: this production stands up. Strong. Gritty. Real. Appealing. Emotional.
So there! I have finally broken through a glass ceiling to say that among the 'Awake and Sing's!' out there, this is one for the books. Preceding bias aside, and there were plenty, de Santos and the cast, notably Ms. Fox, imbues Odets' script with the serious devotion of which his play demands, if not requires. The tragic nature but its comic appeal flow effortlessly from the truth of fear (imagined or otherwise), savage filial protectiveness, and aesthetically pleasing sensibility. Within a capsule of a tidy apartment, war rages between devotion, desire, and despondency—alliteration is easy when the subject is so universal. The poetic nature of Odets shines, as well as the crushing hubris of manipulative machinations. Length and breadth, along with two intermissions is as elastic as time felt when experienced well. It is not a hardship in any way.
Marilyn Fox owns her part as matriarch, but is in excellent company with the other players. Two decades has shifted some of the performers into different roles, but each brings their own nuances and realism to the heart of Odets' funny, but blistering painful play. Its relevancy may lie in the eye of the beholder, but painful truths are ably surmised even in 2015. Families, perhaps more disenfranchised now due to ease of relocation are still plagued by fears of making it, of surviving, let alone staying together. Immunity is in the form of providing oranges on a table.
People don't change overnight, no matter the underpinnings of technology or advancement. 'Awake and Sing!' resonates from the same truths found in titans such as Ibsen, O'Neill and Miller with the same recognition of the flipsides of human nature: tragically comic, comically tragic. In this anniversary revival, both are equally revealed, and it might be this that makes 'Awake and Sing!' sustainable as well as essentially provocative.
Sometimes, no matter how rarely, you can go back.