Awake And Sing! A Moving Tale of Despair, Hope (4.5 Stars)

Awake And Sing! – Written by Clifford Odets; Directed by Melia Bensussen; Scenic design by James Noone; Costume Design by Michael Krass; Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through December 7th.

With the exception of some technological advances and Depression-era dialogue, the situations depicted in the Huntington Theatre’s absorbing production of Clifford Odets excellent work, “Awake And Sing!” could easily have been set in 2014. Two twenty-something adults, forced to live under the same roof as their parents due to low wage employment with little hope of breaking free, suffer the slings and arrows of a domineering mother in a drama that still resonates nearly 80 years after its Broadway debut. The smothering effects of economic hardship on a stressed out family are as real today – with crushing college debt and working class wages edging closer to the poverty line – as it was back then.

The story focuses on three generations of the Berger family living in the same Bronx apartment: Jacob (Boston favorite Will LeBow, who truly owns the role), the Karl Marx spouting grandfather; Myron, his emasculated and defeated son; Bessie, his maniacally controlling wife, and their two children, the pretty but unmotivated Hennie 26, and Ralph, the idealistic 22 year old. Economic insecurity hangs like an impending death sentence over the household, and drives the behavior of Bessie, who tries to keep the wolf from the door by manipulating the lives of all around her. There’s also a pair of men vying for Hennie’s heart, injured war vet Moe Axelrod, and the sincere but overmatched Sam.

Bessie’s fear is contagious, and standing up to her carries a steep price. Her husband Myron (a fully resigned David Wohl) has given up the fight long ago, summed up by his brilliant line, “From the moment I began losing my hair I knew I was destined to be a failure in life.” Which would have been funny in a sitcom, but instead conveys the dearth of hope that would be extinguished entirely if not for his fantasizing about hitting it big in the Irish Sweepstakes or some other stroke of luck. We see Bessie squash all opposition with the ruthlessness of a despot, condemning her daughter to a loveless life when she makes a bad decision in her romantic life; and shaming her father in law to the point of desperation.

But she can’t crush them all or control all of the pieces in the game, and Ralph (Michael Goldsmith) keeps fighting for what he believes is right, despite not having been shown a shred of love by his shrewish mother. Luckily for him, he takes after his lefty grandfather, who escapes from the pressure cooker existence by listening to Italian opera star Caruso, and who provides love for the sensitive and fiery boy. Ralph represents the only obvious optimistic view in the play, although there are some surprises from unlikely sources at the end.

This is a first rate production, fueled by impressive performances throughout. Lori Wilner is terrific as the complicated Bessie, torching everyone who doesn’t follow her plans for happiness while removing all capacity for anyone to actually achieve it. Eric T. Miller is a standout as the bitter but entertaining Moe, and Michael Goldsmith also gives a terrific performance as the tortured but nonetheless optimistic Ralph. Annie Purcell artfully conveys the tough but vulnerable Hennie, and Stephen Schnetzer is appropriately slimy as Bessie’s compassionless one-percenter brother Morty.

I highly recommend this production, especially for anyone who needs to see a face put on the effects of income inequality on families, or just fans of engaging theater. For more info, go to: