Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Awake and Sing!
Quintessence Theatre Group
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's review of 74 Seconds ... to Judgment


DJ Gleason and Lawrence Pressman
Photo by Shawn May Photography
Philadelphia native Clifford Odets is often regarded as a successor to the great Eugene O'Neill. Awake and Sing!, his serious drama about a four-generation Jewish family in New York struggling through the Great Depression, is considered one of his greatest works. Originally produced to great acclaim in 1935, Awake and Sing! is still popular today, most recently revived on Broadway in 2006 and frequently produced in regional theaters around the country. So it was with high expectations that I went to see director Max Schulman's production at the Quintessence Theatre Group in Mount Airy. What I experienced was an emotionally unengaging slog with a family whose endless misery seemed caused by their own dysfunction rather than the severity of their circumstances.

At the heart of the production's problems is the miscasting of DJ Gleason as Ralph. As per Odets' script, Ralph is a 22-year-old frustrated by a job that is too steady to give up, but not lucrative enough to make him independent. That frustration—stoked by both his academic grandfather's idealism and his mother's relentless pragmatism—is at the emotional center of Odets' work. Gleason is a talented actor (his ample charm and excellent comic timing were on full display as Eugene Morris Jerome in Act II Theater Company's recent revival of Biloxi Blues), but here he comes off as a whining teenager. Summer Lee Jack's costume design for Gleason—oversized shirts and no suits—contribute to the sense of juvenile angst. Lawrence Pressman gives a truly moving performance as grandfather Jacob and Sabrina Profitt is intimidating as hard-edged mother Bessie, but the power of their work is stunted by the childishness of Gleason's epiphanies and complaints.

Max Schulman and his creative team miss other key opportunities to convey the gravity and desperation of the era. Megan Jones' elaborate set design feels like a fully rendered Bronx apartment, but with long hallways, three bedrooms, and a separate kitchen it certainly never feels cramped. Even Ralph's sleeping space in the front hall—with no visible personal items or excess clutter—seems more inconvenient than oppressive. The meals the Berger family enjoys are similarly plush; in the second act Bessie serves the largest duck I have ever seen. Yes, these are special meals served primarily for the benefit of well-heeled Uncle Morty (Buzz Roddy is terrific), but there is no suggestion that they are exceptional or that everyone else is taking less so Morty can have more. Profitt's Bessie gives off a sense of intermittent panic when talking about the Depression's effect on those around her, but she is the only one who seems to be concerned.

The more dated elements of Odets' script are handled with similar inconsistency. The cast does a fantastic job of making the period vernacular feel natural (no easy task), but the dynamics between Ralph's sister Hennie (Melody Ladd), her husband Sam (Trevor William Fayle), and love interest Moe (Lee Cortopassi) are hard to palate. Hennie starts out quietly miserable and becomes more miserable and mean once her parents force her to marry naive but earnest immigrant Sam. Sometimes sly and sometimes aggressive, small-time hustler Moe pursues Hennie and harasses Sam throughout. Ladd's flat affect makes it difficult to sympathize with Hennie's plight from the start, but the sweet honesty Fayle brings to Sam makes her seem unjustifiably cruel. Perhaps a 1935 audience would find Sam's willingness to care for a baby and put up with Hennie's endless stream of vitriol irritatingly unmasculine, but it is hard to believe anyone could find Fayle's bumbling loyalty uncompelling. Cortopassi gives Moe a real sense of authenticity and depth, but like Ladd, his character evokes little sympathy. The result is that Hennie and Moe seem like angry bullies, causing unhappiness out of proportion to the ills they suffer.

There are bright spots to be sure: Bradley Mott is fantastic as Myron Berger, Bessie's much abused but never broken husband. As I mentioned earlier Profitt, Pressman, and Roddy are all top notch. Natalie Robin's lighting designs are evocative and, other than the missteps with Gleason's attire, Summer Lee Jack's period costumes designs are spot on. Unfortunately, none of these are enough to overcome the issues that plague Shulman's production. Without a motivating core of shared frustration or an adequate stock of sympathetic characters, Odets' masterpiece falls well short of what it should be.

Awake and Sing!, through February 17, 2019, at The Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia PA. To purchase tickets, visit www.QTGrep.org or call 215-987-4450.

Cast:
Steve Connor: Schlosser
Lee Cortopassi: Moe Axelrod
Trevor William Fayle: Sam Feinschreiber
DJ Gleason: Ralph Berger
Melody Ladd: Hennie Berger
Bradley Mott: Myron Berger
Lawrence Pressman: Jacob
Sabrina Profitt: Bessie Berger
Buzz Roddy: Uncle Morty

Crew:
Directed: Max Shulman
Lighting Design: Natalie Robin
Set Design: Meghan Jones
Costume Design: Summer Lee Jack
Sound Design: Tom Carman


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