The Song of Life

By Mervyn Rothstein
May 12, 2006

A rare revival of Awake and Sing! brings the poetry and passion of Clifford Odets to a new audience.



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When Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! opened on Broadway in 1935, the United States was in the midst of the Great Depression. The play told the story of the Bergers, a lower middle class Jewish family in the Bronx trying to cope with the economic hardship and suffering that was affecting millions of Americans.

But that was 71 years ago, and the country and the world have changed greatly. So why revive the play now?

"There's something about Awake and Sing! at this moment that seems more deeply resonant than it has ever been - more rewarding and more rich and more hearable than ever," says Bartlett Sher, who is directing Lincoln Center Theater's production of the play at the Belasco Theatre. The cast includes Zoë Wanamaker, Ben Gazzara, Mark Ruffalo and Lauren Ambrose.

The play "is full of rich human beings and deep family life, of humanity and politics and ideas," says Sher, who helmed last season's multiple Tony-winning The Light in the Piazza. "The people are entertaining, full of life and struggle. And they seem to be asking the same questions I'm asking myself right now. I feel as if everything I thought I understood as an American is changing - and I'm looking for answers to who I am in this culture, in my family, in my life. So I thought that the play had to be looked at again."

What are some of those issues? "For the Bergers," Sher says, "it's the Great Depression that is causing them to come apart at the seams. Families today are also under stress, but in different ways. In fact, I think that people today have as much anxiety about their future as they did then. Americans seem to be struggling with the sense that things could collapse at any point - whether it's economically or medically or the family itself, whether it's pressure on their kids to do well and be able to survive."

And of course, he says, there's the political question - in which direction is the country heading? - a question that was very much on the table all those years ago.

Awake and Sing! had its world premiere on February 19, 1935, at that same Belasco Theatre. Presented by the legendary Group Theatre, it featured a cast that included acting greats Luther and Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky and John Garfield. The director was the renowned Harold Clurman.

The New York Times hailed that production's "stunning power" and said it was "full of substance and vitality." But over the years the play has been relatively neglected compared with other Odets plays, like Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy - even though Awake and Sing! is often considered his finest work.

Sher says that when Andre Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater's artistic director, asked him to consider the play, he hesitated. "I had old ideas about Odets," Sher says. "I think the play was painted with the brush of being leftist. But I found that it was the best writing by an American playwright, and the closest writing to Chekhov of anybody I'd ever run into.

In addition, he says, Awake and Sing! "gives us a memory about ourselves, about who we are. Whether we're in a Jewish family or an Irish family or an Italian family or an African-American family or any other kind of family, we all had families who struggled enormously, who sacrificed greatly for us - and in some ways hurt us - but who meant a lot to us. I think this will be a big memory play for many people in the audience. That's why it's being produced at the Belasco - to connect with the Group Theatre, those extraordinary artists who pioneered Method acting here, who gave America a way of acting."

The revival, Sher says, is an exploration "not only of a writer but of a group of amazing theatre artists from the 1930's. To revisit them on their own turf is a great joy - it's a rare thing that a Broadway audience gets to see some of the best actors now in America put up against the same material that was done by some of the best actors in America then."

Directing the play provides two great challenges, he says. "The first is getting inside the sense of struggle. It's connecting with a sense of economic anxiety, what happens if you really can't make enough to get by, to pay the rent, to pay the phone bill, if you really are going to fall behind enough to lose your home. That anxiety is huge - and it affects millions of Americans now."

The other challenge, Sher says, "is how to get inside a family's irony and deep connections. Families have their own language, their own private shared things. How do we pierce all those layers in which a family interacts - all those unspoken things, the way they know how to hit each other's buttons? And that can also be every entertaining."

But, he says, perhaps the most exciting thing to him about Awake and Sing! is the writing itself: "The poetry, the complexity. I've directed Goldoni, Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov, Ibsen - Adam Guettel, with Piazza. I've done some pretty big writers. Odets is right at the top with them. He's that amazing combination of extraordinary poetry and deep human experience who is hugely entertaining and who asks some big questions. He's all the things you want for an experience of theatre in the 21st century."