Director Melia Bensussen and actor Will LeBow are both originally from New York, raised in families steeped in the Jewish tradition. Bensussen’s uncle was a devotee of the arts, particularly the socially progressive productions of the Group Theatre. LeBow’s grandfather was a director, actor, and playwright in the Yiddish theater. And both actor and director are working together on the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Awake and Sing,” Clifford Odets’s 1935 play about a Jewish family struggling to survive in the Bronx.
But while they share a common background, that’s where the similarities end. She sees the play, which was originally produced by the Group Theatre, as a hopeful call to action. He sees it as a cautionary tale about how a toxic family dynamic can stifle the soul. And that’s what is fascinating about their work together on the production, which begins previews Friday and runs through Dec. 7 at the Boston University Theatre.
“The actors come from so many different backgrounds and generations, and their experiences of Jewishness in America impacts how they view the Jewishness in the play,” Bensussen says, adding that it was the first mainstream play to feature a Jewish family on Broadway.
In fact, Bensussen, 52, is almost giddy with nostalgia when she discusses the play. She practically skips into a rehearsal room to show a visitor a display of old black-and-white newspaper pages and placards from the 1930s. One features a banner headline screaming in capital letters: “Three Slain in Texas Strike: Blame Aliens.” Determined faces peer from the photos, images of progressive Jewish intellectuals who got their hands dirty in the labor movement of the 1930s. “They look like my relatives,’’ says Bensussen, who is also chairwoman of the performing arts department at Emerson College. “This is a world I recognize.”
The members of the Group Theatre were passionately involved in the leftist politics of their time. Odets’s “Waiting for Lefty,” which also debuted in 1935, was a not-so-subtle call for workers to strike. Bensussen’s family shared those progressive beliefs. Many of her relatives were blacklisted during the McCarthy Era, and her grandfather appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
As such, she feels both a personal and political connection to “Awake and Sing.” The younger generations in the play bicker about money and propriety, but the Marxist grandfather, Jacob, insists, “Life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills.” He is the moral conscience of the play and urges his grandson to move beyond the domestic drama and work for a larger cause. “There is talk in the play of hope and revolution, and I was raised on those beliefs,” Bensussen says.
But while the character of Jacob represents a call for social justice, the family itself is mired in its own internal battles. The mother, Bessie, is a meddler who is not above forcing an unwanted marriage or standing between a young man and his lover. “The intense family dynamic feels familiar from my childhood,” the director says. “I come from the same genetic stock.”
Bensussen knows these people, and she has compassion for all of them, even the matriarch. “It is easy to vilify the mother, but a mother fighting for the survival of her family is an epic creature,’’ she says. “Her humanity is in there. No one in the play is bad, but people behave badly because they are not putting the greater good first.”
LeBow, who plays Jacob, has a completely different emotional response, particularly to the character of Bessie. He grew up in Queens, one of three children in the only Jewish family in the neighborhood. He remembers being persecuted in elementary school until the vice principal, a member of the Jewish Defense League, made it stop.
His own family, he says, resembled the family in the play, but he doesn’t look back fondly. When told Bensussen says she can’t villainize the mother in the play, he responds, “I, the actor, can.” He sees the mother as a paralyzing figure who forces her offspring to bend to her will. “I see the fallout, and I have seen it all my life,” LeBow says. “That was the role of the Jewish homemaker, the Jewish home controller. When the curtains were drawn, the mom exercised total control. She comes by it honestly, but that type of parenting can kill.”
He grew up in a world where the older generations could do no wrong. He even saw it in his grandfather’s work in Yiddish theater, especially in his unusual adaptation of “King Lear.” “The play my grandfather wrote was all about the head of the family being wronged by his daughters. Period. No tragic flaws. No nothing. It had a happy ending,’’ he says, completely seriously. “Cordelia lives and stays around to take care of Pop. That theme resonated in the Jewish community.”
LeBow went on to play Lear in 1980 with the now-defunct Boston Shakespeare Company. His father saw his performance. “I don’t think he liked it,” LeBow says. “The ending was off for him.” Shortly after that production, a schism that had been growing for some time came to a head. LeBow had been questioning Judaism and his relationship with his family, and his parents disowned him.
They never patched things up. “When I think of my family casting me out, it fills me with calmness in the sense that it helped me have a great life,’’ says LeBow, 65, an established Boston actor with more than three decades of work on local stages.
At a very young age, he decided never to have children. “One of my mother’s favorite expressions was, ‘Wait until you have kids!’ ” he says. “I remember thinking as a kid, ‘You can wait forever, because that ain’t going to happen.’ ’’
His life experience colors his interpretation of the play. “Yes, there is that debate about money versus living,’’ he says. “But for me, the play is very much about the toxicity of the family and how control is maintained or not. I like that it doesn’t have a neat, happy ending. It is what it is.”
Bensussen, on the other hand, sees the play as a rallying cry, akin to the sound of the shofar, which in Jewish culture is a horn that blasts a call to action. “Awake and sing, ye who dwell in the dust,” she says emphatically, quoting the biblical passage that gives the play its name. “Odets is saying, ‘Pay attention. Be conscious of how you are living your life.’ ’’
While the director says that today’s audiences are more cynical than the folks who first saw the play back in 1935, she believes its message is very much of the moment. “This is a very dangerous, muscular play,” she says. The drama takes place six years after the Wall Street crash of 1929, and this production is being presented six years after the stock market crash of 2008. There is still a debate about economic disparity, inadequate wages, and the fragility of the middle class. Bensussen points to the recent Market Basket standoff between workers and owners, which could have been the subject of an Odets play.
And LeBow agrees. “It is the same world in terms of the family struggle and the economic struggle,’’ he says. “I may be a little too close to the material so that I get too emotionally involved watching the other characters, which is not my job as an actor. But the stakes are high. In my view, this material demands honest life or death stakes from an actor. And that is the most important thing.”
Patti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.