Awake and Sing!
2nd Avenue South Players,
Meymandi Theater of the Murphey School
Through Aug. 31

A painter’s studio has a certain drama all its own, even when no one is in the room: You sense the potential in the place. The drama intensifies when you see a work on an easel, partially completed. The unfinished work bears its own dramatic tension: Will it grow in the way you anticipate from what’s already there? Will the artist complete the workand with it, that part of the artist’s identity that the work contains?

The work in progress is an appropriate metaphorparticularly as the start of a new theater season coincides with a new academic yearfor how drama critics should, I think, view the careers of directors, actors, designers and theater companies. This craft of criticism is so easily preoccupied with the daily verdict, it sometimes loses sight that artists and companies are long-term works in progress themselves. A critic looks for what a show can teach audiences and artistshow it adds to our continuing development.

2nd Avenue South’s production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! may well suggest more of a work in progress than its producers would be comfortable with. A critique of last Friday’s opening night at Burning Coal Theater’s stage at Murphey School could so easily focus on issues of technique that it winds up shortchanging matters closer to the play’s heart.

The uncredited set design is certainly homey, emphasizing the tastefulbut certainly not ostentatiousfurnishings of a struggling Jewish middle-class family in a New York suburb three-quarters of a century ago. But even though director Al Singer has the audience surround the set on three sides, it’s still too large to convey the claustrophobia of a dwelling where the grown son has to sleep on a daybed in the main roomor where his dreams and ideals are being crowded out, one by one, hectored by an indomitable matriarch.

Even more distracting on opening night were difficulties in the fundamentals of vocal projection and clarity that plagued both of its younger stars. Where seasoned veterans like David Ring (as grandfather Jacob), and Jan Morgan and George Jack (as mother and father Bessie and Myron), could always be heard from any point on stage, Kyle Perrin’s lines as alienated son Ralph were too often blurted out or mumbled on Friday night to be heard. As Ralph’s sister, Hennie, Kathryn Milliken looked like a million bucks, and her scenes with Larry Evans as her paramour, Moe Axelrod, smoldered appropriately. Even so, her voice faded on enough occasions to notice.

Those cavils, however, could possibly be addressed by this week’s performances. More troublesomeand probably harder to solveis the problem of interpreting the mother in Odets’ script. Odets fashioned this Jewish mother as the veritable bedrock of the familyBessie Berger is undeniably a strong woman whose survival instincts and stamina are probably the key factor that has kept her clan afloat in the Great Depression. But she is also, as the playwright writes her, something of a racist (though this production has cleaned up Odets’ language) and a xenophobe, manipulator and out-and-out liar when it is convenient to be so. Just how cold is she? Seconds after reassuring hapless son-in-law Sam that the loveless marriage she arranged between him and daughter Hennie is legit, she says, “He thinks he’s second fiddle? By me he doesn’t even play in the orchestra!”

Her coldness to Ralph’s girlfriend, due to a series of ever-changing reasonsshe’s an orphan, she’s skinnyseems mirrored in the regard her brother, Morty, shows the workers at his garment factory. He dismisses his father’s complaints about low wages as “sweatshop talk”before he tellingly has to leave a later scene to deal with a strike at his worksite.

With both Bessie and Morty, ethical niceties haven’t exactly been allowed to get in the way of survival. Even more troubling, the border lines that determine who’s treated humanely haven’t been drawn at the edge of the family. Not when the folks can afford nice clothes and an outing to the movies, but somehow can’t find the cash to fix their son’s teeth.

The difficulty with this production’s depiction of Bessie doesn’t appear to involve the actor’s range: In her long career, Jan Morgan has played both monsters and matriarchs. Instead, I’m guessing that the director never got comfortable with Bessie’s dark side. Since the show doesn’t seem to know how far to play it, it errs by staying too polite. Although Odets’ oeuvre was social criticism, here the extreme “pragmatism” of the mom almost gets a pass. In doing so, the major conflict in this famous script is never fully fundedand a character that should have us nodding in sympathy mere moments before she completely ices out our sympathies doesn’t get the needed fuel.

Odets’ drama galvanized audiences in the 1930s. The reasons why appear inadequately explored in this production.