Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Long Must We Sing This Song?

Theatre Review

Awake and Sing!
A play by Clifford Odets
Northlight Theatre, Skokie

Excepting references to Greta Garbo, Enrico Caruso, vaudeville and just one world war, which clearly establish it as current to the time it was written and first produced, Clifford Odets' 1935 play about the struggles and strife of a Bronx-based Jewish family during the Depression could easily take place in 2010. In fact, while director Amy Morton's production at Northlight was stellar throughout, I could have imagined it being done in modern dress. Although that likely would have undermined the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

While I had heard of Awake and Sing! referenced as a classic American play in the vein of Death of a Salesman, Our Town, A Streetcar Named Desire and other timeless tales, I had never read nor seen it until this afternoon. But the chance to see a Morton-directed show starring the wonderful Mike Nussbaum for just $20 (a day-of-show ticket through the Northlight box office) convinced me to check it out.

Though as with the other classics named above, and many other legendary plays, Awake and Sing! required a bit of post-show homework to ensure I understood both the plot points and the play's message, even at face value, the play was quite worthwhile. Odets' language was fast-paced and the play was never dull. And having just seen August: Osage County, it was also interesting to note similarities in plays written over 70 years apart.

For instance, both feature a family matriarch--and central character--who is angry, nasty and overbearing. Not sure what it is, but from these two examples and myriad others that I can--A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Gypsy--and can't cite, the theater isn't always too kind when it comes to mothers.

I'm still not completely sure I comprehended everything that Odets was going for, but keeping in mind that the title, Awake and Sing!, is meant to be taken as a command, I guess that the main theme of the play is perseverance--through tough times, unemployment, etc.--while maintaining both hope and dignity. While it's a shame that whether in 1935 or 2010 we have to sing the same old song, some notes--those of grace and integrity and hope--still ring true.

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