Eliot’s Rock Theatre

One of the things director Peter Sellars said during his recent appearance at Northwestern University was that exactitude gives art “moral force.” The half-made, stock, or arbitrary gesture saps a work of integrity and power. In Sellars’s words, “You have to work hard and get it right.”

The members of Eliot’s Rock Theatre have obviously worked very hard on their production of Clifford Odets’s depression-era Awake and Sing! Maybe some of the costumes are anachronistic. Maybe the set is a bit cluttered and inconsistent, hovering uncomfortably between realism and abstraction. But director Russell DeGrazier and his cast are so at home in Odets’s Bronx tenement that nearly every moment in this two-hour production rings true. Eliot’s Rock has taken a big, potentially clunky text, which seems to lie dead on the page, and turned it into a briskly articulated, elegantly choreographed, and urgently human play, as vibrant and exciting as it must have been almost 60 years ago. They got this right.

Awake and Sing! is no easy piece to stage. The play shows us four scenes from a year in the life of the Berger family–working-class Jews who, in Odets’s words, “struggle for life amidst petty conditions.” No unified plot fuels the drama. Instead, almost as Chekhov might, Odets shows us the dynamics of a family, the power plays that go on, and the lies that threaten to destroy the family’s tenuous bonds. Three generations of Bergers live in the apartment. Bessie (Amelia Bornstein) is a strong and fiercely proud mother, nearly maniacal in her struggle to keep her family together and to get the respect she feels she deserves from everyone around her. Myron (Jay Geller), her husband, is a sweet, caring, but completely ineffectual man who, as Odets tells us, “is heartbroken without being aware of it.” Their children, Hennie (Amy Malloy) and Ralph (Peter Hobert), desperately want to claim their independence despite the suffocating care of their mother. And Jacob (Steve Breaker), Bessie’s father, is a retired barber and ardent Marxist who, after a life of hesitation and inaction, is now reduced to polishing his barber’s shears and listening all day to recordings of Caruso.

DeGrazier has staged his production with intelligence and insight. His work is quite formal, employing simple patterns of movement and recurring tableaux. This staging succeeds because it so carefully and subtly reveals the underlying dynamics of the Berger family. His actors move either in tense circles, emphasizing the stagnation that threatens everyone, or in bold diagonals, emphasizing the impulse to flee. The first scene, taking place just as supper is being finished, neatly exploits these contrary pulls. Everyone seems to hover around the table, sitting in the seats we know they’ve always occupied, clinging to the order and stability that “the family dinner” affords them. But when they get up–ostensibly to get something from the kitchen–they dash offstage, as if they long to crash out through the walls.

This scene, like the rest of the play, is both elegant and potentially explosive. Chaos always seems ready to overtake the stage, making the play volatile, immediate, and passionate. One can hardly sit passively and watch Bessie treat her father like a child, telling him repeatedly to take out the family poodle, as if that were all he’s good for anymore. This production is full of arresting moments played with complete integrity and at times nearly unwatchable cruelty–Hennie and her would-be suitor Moe Axelrod (David Roth) threatening to break each other’s arms, Bessie telling Ralph that if his girlfriend “dropped in the ocean I don’t lift a finger,” Moe tossing away the penny that Jacob gives him for a cigarette.

DeGrazier and his cast have perfectly captured the unthinking callousness with which these people treat each other, the calculated maneuvers they use to step on one another’s dignity, and the tenacity with which they cling together. Odets’s play bristles with complexity and ambiguity, and no simple solutions are attempted in this production. Rather we see relationships that are at once life-sustaining and self-destructive. In one stunning moment, Hennie, after telling her husband, Sam (Lee Warren), to stop touching her and go home, grabs him by the jaw and passionately and violently kisses him. This unresolved moment is the kind of thing that makes the play a challenge.

These nine actors fill the stage with enough heart to blow the walls out. There is no posing, no affectation, no insincerity. These actors put themselves on the line. They are for real. I couldn’t forget certain moments: Ralph’s body visibly vibrating at the mention of his sweetheart’s name, Bessie struggling to maintain control after hearing that her father has fallen off the roof, Sam trying to touch the wife who hates him, Uncle Morty (Jeffrey Satterfield), the successful capitalist, almost ready to thrash his own father over his Marxist ideals. There is not a weak link in the cast–and most impressive of all, these actors handle Odets’s language like beautiful poetry. They almost sing the text as they continually speak over one another in careful choral arrangements and then let sudden silences fall.

With this production I understood for the first time why Odets was hailed in 1935 as the greatest playwright since O’Neill: four of his plays reached Broadway in that one year. Awake and Sing! is an enormously difficult work that offers little in the way of solutions–although Odets’s socialist slant is clearly evident. Instead it shows a family’s inner workings, workings so intricate they can never be untangled. It is Odets’s ability to resist simplification and interpretation that gives his play, and this Eliot’s Rock production, such great success. I have never been a fan of realistic drama, but this production reminded me of just how powerful any artistic form can be in the hands of caring, intelligent, and creative artists.