Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Hard times make hard people. Compassion, justice, and loyalty all carry prices beyond the reach of those who need them most: survival must suffice. According to Clifford Odets, the sole hope for decent folks is to break free from the pull of material things, to find a good that connects instead of divides the way money does.

Like Brecht, his contemporary, Odets made this imperative a force in several plays: Golden Boy, Waiting for Lefty, The Big Knife, and Paradise Lost. It finds its strongest depiction, however, in Awake and Sing!, a play whose optimistic title is like an antidote to the plot.

Fifty-seven years after the play’s first production, Odets remains an angry young man. Given today’s hard times, his intense love for his characters feels right and timely, while the struggles of the Bergers, a poor Jewish family in the Bronx, remain elemental: you see them echoed in Steinbeck’s Joads, Wilder’s Antrobuses, Williams’s Wingfields, Miller’s Lomans, and Simon’s Jeromes. And in real people today. Some conflicts don’t date.

The Bergers’ desperation, spawned by the sense that they’re paralyzed by their dead-end lives, explodes in the kind of over-the-top style Odets’s Group Theatre favored. The father, Myron, a sententious and self-pitying failure, long ago ceded authority to his imperious wife. Bessie is a corrupting woman terrified of poverty: she pursues bourgeois respectability like a hawk, and assumes that her oft-proclaimed sufferings will excuse her petty cruelties and amoral manipulation. Bessie is that sad creature–a mother who’ll destroy her family in order to save it.

By contrast Odets describes Jacob, Bessie’s socialist father and the play’s moral center, as a “sentimental idealist with no power to turn ideal to action.” To Bessie, who measures people by their power to make money, Jacob has no value; she treats him abominably. Refusing to believe that “life can be printed on dollar bills,” Jacob urges his rebellious 21-year-old grandson, Ralph, to escape his narrow family’s bankrupt values. He pleads with Ralph to awake and sing–and hold to something higher than survival and to a cause larger than his own family.

Ralph may be too angry to succumb to his mother’s false values, but his sister is too tired to resist. After being jilted when she becomes pregnant, Hennie hastily marries Sam Feinschreiber, an immigrant suitor the family tricks into believing that the child is his. But Moe Axelrod, Hennie’s first lover, never really leaves the scene; a proud war vet, Moe is bitter at the “rackets” controlling the world; he wants his own any way he can get it–and he wants Hennie. (Odets contrasts Moe’s cynicism with an even worse point of view, the sickening optimism of Bessie’s rich, thuggish brother, Uncle Morty.) Hennie finally makes a no-win, morally suspect decision to follow her heart.

Ralph faces a similar conflict between love and material ambitions: he loves Blanche, a poor orphan girl Bessie won’t permit to enter their home, much less accept as a daughter-in-law. That ugly standoff is broken by a sacrificial suicide. At the end, sensing the power of his grandfather’s legacy, Ralph vows to become a labor radical. His mother has told him, “A boy should have respect for his own future”–and he takes her advice, but not the way she meant it. Like Tom Joad, Ralph sets aside the search for security to serve a larger family, his fellow workers. If this sounds hokey today, it’s our loss.

The tie between grandfather and grandson is the play’s one pure relationship. It’s as if Odets had written off an entire generation–Bessie, Myron, Moe, and Morty’s generation–as too embittered by the world war or crushed by the Depression to wonder beyond tomorrow. But with Jacob passing the flame down to Ralph, the play’s optimistic title is justified.

Odets poured a ton of harsh cultural commentary into his depiction of this festering family, much of it implicitly threatening to the ongoing “family values” charade. It’s tempting to deny the connections Odets draws between the social problems depicted in the play and the characters’ frustrations, to focus instead on the soap-opera situations and domesticate this work into a nostalgic period piece.

Fortunately Sheldon Patinkin, who directs this Steppenwolf revival, has refused to sentimentalize the Bergers. In fact the production’s ugliest but truest moment comes when the family, goaded on by the bullying Bessie, attacks Jacob for his impractical idealism, clearly relishing his pain as they insult him. Their feeding frenzy rings truer than all the sentiment in a hundred feel-good family dramas.

Subtly and smoothly Patinkin distinguishes those characters who hold the future in their hands from the ones simply beaten up by life. Nathan Davis gives the upright old man, a prophet without honor in his own country, the hard-earned old-left integrity of a Fred Fine. Jeffrey Lieber is so effective at suggesting young Ralph’s agonized confusion that when he finally grabs his cause you can taste the victory.

Chief among those who sleep and never sing is Barbara Robertson’s nasty Bessie, a shrewish nightmare who’d be too much to take if Robertson didn’t show us that Bessie’s miseries match her meanness. As her toady husband, Francis Guinan manages to reduce himself to a missing person who’s still around. A picture of smug, racist arrogance, Alan Wilder’s Morty recalls every obnoxious self-made jerk you ever crossed the street to avoid.

Caught between the singers and the sleepers are willing victims like Rengin Altay’s tough-talking but weak Hennie and her dweebish dupe of a husband, played with an appropriate glumness by David Alan Novak. Where they’re passive, Jeff Perry’s seething Moe is active, snarling and sneering; fortunately, he also shows us why.

A final gift from Michael Merritt, the irreplaceable theater artist who died on August 3, is the richly detailed apartment set (also designed by Kurt Sharp), which seems in imminent danger of being crushed by the teetering tenements above it. Frances Maggio’s costumes make the kind of distinctions Bessie understands all too well.