"When one lives in the jungle one must look out for the wild life."
Bessie Berger knows she lives in the jungles of the Bronx. It’s 1935. You bet her goal is to protect her family and everything and everyone she holds dear from the wild life out there.
|Sandy Campbell, Max Macke, Joe Paulson (background)|
She knows that just down the street from their Longwood Ave. apartment they threw a family out on the street and all their furniture on the sidewalk. “A fine old woman with grey hair.” Forbid, she might be next.
She also knows that a butcher on Beck Street won eighty thousand dollars with the purchase of a fifty-cent piece. She questions why anyone would spend a fifty-cent piece for Irish Raffles? She reasons that if they could win on Beck Street ‘we could win on Longwood Ave.’
She knows as well that in order to protect her children from living in either shame or misfortune that she will do anything, lie, cajole or coerce to stop that from happening. Bessie has all the answers because she is in charge of the Berger lair.
Bessie Berger is a first generation American Jewish woman. She lives in Odets’ world and embraces the essence of his beliefs. Clifford Odets was born to Jewish immigrant parents. He later became one of the original members of the New York City based Avant-guard, left wing ensemble Group Theatre.
He has been ‘lionized as the country’s most promising playwright,” “the proletarian Jesus”, and the “poet of the Jewish middle class.” “Awake and Sing!” premiered in 1935 one month after “Lefty”. That March his anti-Nazi pay “Till The Day I Die” opened in New York.
To the best of my recollection his plays produced here have been few and far between and that, my friends, is our misfortune. His 1937 “Golden Boy” was among the first in this area, and that was in 2008 by New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. They are at it again currently mounting Odets’ “Awake and Sing!” (Originally titled “I Got The Blues”) considered to be his masterpiece. It is making a San Diego premiere. It plays through April 16th.
|Tom Deak, J. Tyler Jones, Eric poppick, Sandy Campbell, Joe Paulson, Tom Steward, Max Macke.|
Under Kristianne Kurner’s (she also designed the detailed and cramped set of the Berger home) deft direction, and an all-star cast Odets’ play and this production is a stunner. It is also timely, provocative and eye opening! If one fails to see the similarities then and now of the condition in the country, one has been blindsided.
Bessie Berger (Sandy Campbell) struggles between realism and idealism. She is the personification of the life’s blood of her family yet on some level she is one that almost sucks the air out of them in the playwright’s homage to the woes and misery, tensions and conflicts of life in America during the great depression.
If you are looking for a Jewish mother, Campbell’s Bessie fits the bill. “I don’t understand what I did to God He blessed me with such children. From the whole world…”
But Bessie doesn’t live in a vacuum. Even though she runs her tight ship with righteousness and conviction there are those in her flat that are trying to grow wings and fly. Her job is to see that they fly in the right direction.
Her apartment on Longwood Ave is bursting at the seams with immediate family and a lodger. Ideological conflicts and hope also permeate the spaces left between conversations. Oft times it appears that the jungle lies within.
|Tom Deak, Eric Poppick, Max Macke, J. Tyler Jones|
Bessie’s father Jacob (an outstanding Eric Poppick) is a sentimental idealist who strives for justice when justice is the last thing on his daughter’s mind; think respectability.
Poppick’s Jacob is as steady as is his character especially when those around him have lost their center. He begs his family to leave the world a better place than when they found it.
He finds his neutrality not in his belief in Marxism, but in the recordings of the Great Caruso. His main contribution is the attention, support and inheritance he gives his grandson Ralph (J. Tyler Jones). To both his grandchildren, his final act of dignity is to convince them to ‘free themselves’.
Ralph is the romantic in the family. He is, if allowed, the future of the Berger family. “I got a girl…Don’t laugh….But she got me! Boy, I’m telling you I could sing!” Jones is near perfect as he pushes ahead, listen, draws conclusions, stays true to his own beliefs, good bad or oft times stifled. “Life with my girl. Boy, I could sing when I think about it.”
|J. Tyler Jones, Max Macke, Anna Rebek|
Hennie (Anna Rebek) is the almost spinster daughter at 26. Stoic to a point she finds herself, much to her chagrin, in an arranged marriage when her mother realizes that her stay at home independent daughter is in a ‘family way’. Rebek’s body language and facial expressions say more with a look or gesture than all Bessie’s kvetching, reasoning and oft times humor.
The man Bessie picked for Hennie to give her daughter an air of respectability is Sam Feinschreiber (a well measured performance by Tom Steward). It is Hennie’s job to convince Sam that the child they are rearing belongs to him. Still fresh off the boat, and shy to a fault he runs to Bessie whenever there is a family crisis between himself and Hennie.
The almost invisible person in the room is Myron (Joe Paulson), Bessie’s passive husband who, even if he tried, couldn’t compete with his wife. He quotes the good old days, offers an opinion or the answer to a rhetorical question in which no one is particularly interested. “People aint the same. No manners. The whole world’s changing right under our eyes.” Paulson, who is making his NVA debut, is a person to be followed. His is another flawless performance.
|Anna Rebek, Max Macke, Sandy Campbell, Joe Paulson|
Speaking about flawless Max Macke is Moe Axelrod, the boarder in the Berger homestead. His performance as the tough guy (he lost a leg in the war) and larger than life presence that also carries a torch for Hennie goes beyond excellent. There is a brute force between the two that reverberates in look and closeness. In fact, the Berger world almost revolves around him as he struts, pushes, mocks and dominates every scene he’s in.
Dropping by for some chopped liver on his way to a union meeting is Uncle Morty (Tom Deák), Bessie’s brother. He’s made the American Dream come true and everyone looks to him for advice. Deák fits the bill as the domineering force in the brother /sister relationship, but like his sister he likes to change the odds if and when it suites the need.
And, as Tevye says, ‘those outside our circle include’…. Outside the Berger circle is Schlosser (Alex Guzman who also doubles as the guitar player seen behind a scrim above the Berger’s), the German janitor. He gets no respect and is overworked and oft times verbally abused by Bessie. Last but not least is Tootsie the unseen dog.
Adding to the overall look Elisa Benzoni’s period costumes are right on target, Melanie Chen’s sound design, Chris Renda’s lighting and JoAnn Glover’s dialect coaching give cause to celebrate Odets in the house.
As a supporter of recycling, reclaiming and reviving, Odets’ “Awake & Sing” in this revival by NVA is as top notch and relevant as the year it was written.
“Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust awake and sing for joy! For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. Isaiah 26:19.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through April 16th
Organization: New Village Arts Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad Village
Ticket Prices: $36.00
Photo: Daren Scott