By Clifford Odets. At: Northlight Theatre at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie, Skokie. Phone: 847-673-6300 ; $35-$50. Runs through: Feb. 28
In tough economic times, re-exploring the Great Depression is an approach that beckons the theater company who strives for cultural relevancy. Northlight Theatre has found a play in Clifford Odets' family drama Awake and Sing! that not only satisfies that modern connection, but also challenges its down-on-luck audience, just as it did in 1935, rather than pitying it.
Still reeling off the success of August: Osage County, Steppenwolf company member Amy Morton directs a similarly dysfunctional family embittered by each other's expectations and left emotionally wasted by the depression. The play, however, and Northlight's production, is not overly hopeful nor does it champion the virtue of perseverance under tough conditions. Instead, Odets suggests we divorce the concept of hope from that of money so "life won't be printed on dollar bills" as the young Ralph Berger dreams it someday might.
But to do that involves toning down self-interests, something the always-bickering Berger family appears far from capable of after a rapid-fire opening scene of blame and Jewish guilt. Taking place entirely in their little apartment in the Bronx, tempers flare and the tender moments are few and far between.
The domineering matriarch, Bessie, played spot-on by Cindy Gold, exacerbates the familial conflict. Her sense of entitlement to the respect of her children and that they should do her proud by settling down is a rough demand. The opposing viewpoint is her father, Jacob, the poetic soul of the play, nudging his grandson to do exactly what's in his heart, to "carry in himself a revolution" because he himself never did. The role is perfect for Northlight co-founder Mike Nussbaum, whose encouraging wisdom comes equipped with an old-country accent. Another notable in this sharp cast is Jay Whittaker as Moe Axelrod, the Bergers' family friend and biggest cynic whose quick quips and dry humor can't fully mask his one desire: the Bergers' daughter, Hennie. Whittaker pokes and prods the conflict until, finally, something bursts.
With all these competing voices, Morton's chief job is coordinator. The pacing of the play is lightning-quick. The first couple of acts are especially demanding of the audience to keep up with the frenetic dialogue. But this top-notch ensemble keeps the conflict flowing effectively so that when we arrive at the sole dramatic event of the play, it wields a silencing impact.
When Ralph comes to his moment of self-realization as inspired in him by Jacob, it's not so much an inspiring moment of thematic triumph in this production as it is a sigh of relief. Finally someone in this play has shed himself of the need to blame circumstance and other people for feeling unfulfilled. Awake and Sing! is far from an awe-inspiring theater experience, but the familial tension generated by this veteran cast is enough to awaken anyone to the need to at least be cognizant of how we might better treat others when tough times are eating away at whatever we have left of our aspirations.