Arena Stage in Washington is currently bringing back a classic—Awake and Sing!, the 1930’s Clifford Odets drama about a Jewish family in the Bronx, the Bergers, struggling for survival in a crowded tenement in the midst of the Great Depression.
The theatre company is also bringing back another classic—the play’s director is Zelda Fichandler, who co-founded the group in 1950 and was its producing director for 40 years. It is her first appearance in a nearly decade at the theatre she created.
“I did the play at Arena a long time ago, and when I read it again, I was just passionate to do it,” Fichandler says, speaking from her office at New York University, where she is a Master Teacher and the chair of the graduate acting program. “Odets really was the poet of the Jewish middle class. The play is a Jewish blues song. It’s got the rhythms and the language of the blues.”
It’s not a naturalistic or a contemporary kind of song, she says. “But what makes it contemporary to me is that we are again an immigrant nation. If it seems dated to people—and I thought it was dated until I reencountered it —it’s because they are just looking at the surface of this 1930’s drama, not at the depth of his conventions of character and language, and not at the waste of spirit in the American dream, the kind of stalled soulfulness that haunted the land then and does for immigrant society so often now.”
She was also moved, she says, to see how poverty functions in the play and “how humiliation and shame is a function of that poverty—that the people live in recognition that they are not able to find their best selves.” It is the 100th anniversary of Odets’s birth—he was born in 1906 and died in 1963—and the critic John Lahr has called for his work to be revived. “That’s not a reason to do the play,” she says. “I didn’t know that when I decided to do it.” The reasons to revive the play and the playwright, she says, include “the rich, compassionate, angry tone of it, the feelings for people, the dramatic punch, the bracing dialogue. Marlon Brando said that Clifford Odets was the thirties.”
Theatre aficionados should note that when the original Broadway production of Awake and Sing! opened at the Belasco on Feb. 19, 1935, produced by the legendary Group Theatre, its cast and creative team included many theatre greats and soon-to-be theatre greats. The director was Harold Clurman; the set designer was Boris Aronson; and the cast included Luther Adler, Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, Sanford Meisner and a young actor named Jules Garfield, who changed his name to John Garfield and became a star.
How does Fichandler feel about returning to Arena Stage? “It feels great,” she says. “I’m very excited. I went back once before, but I’ve been too busy, and I hadn’t found a play that excited me as much as this one. And I have a home in Washington. Even though I’m here all the time, I still consider Washington my home.”