The Berger household is a place where dreams have been either deferred or deformed, a place whose inhabitants are constrained both by the crushing financial realities of the Great Depression and by their own reluctance to take decisive steps toward a different life for themselves.
But when some of them finally start trying to break free, the sparks fly in Clifford Odets’s “Awake and Sing!,’’ now at Huntington Theatre Company in a lively and absorbing production directed by Melia Bensussen.
Aspects of “Awake and Sing!’’ are unavoidably dated. Odets had a fondness for stylized patter on the order of: “Say the word — I’ll tango on a dime. Don’t gimme ice when your heart’s on fire!’’ But Bensussen maintains her focus on the timeless dilemmas at the play’s heart, which makes the period-piece cobwebs less noticeable as the production gathers momentum.
For all its noisy showdowns — the play could just as easily be titled “Awake and Shout!’’ — Bensussen lets its silences speak, too. As in her Huntington productions of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation’’ and Kirsten Greenidge’s “The Luck of the Irish,’’ the director makes sure that we fully see and hear the characters straining after individual identity within a complex group.
Odets’s skill at weaving together personal and political conflicts remains impressive, and there’s an inherent value to discovering how the world looked to a lower-middle-class Jewish family in a certain time (the Huntington production is set in 1935-36) and place (the Bronx). This is especially the case when there are parallels to our own time, with the country still emerging, groggily, from the trauma of the Great Recession. One big difference between now and then: “Awake and Sing!’’ is animated by a belief in collective action that has been largely absent — except for the Occupy movement — from the nation’s response to the injustices highlighted by the recession.
As a man of the left whose work was fueled by a spirit of social protest, Odets had a none-too-subtle message to impart, principally embodied here by Jacob, the labor-championing, Marx-quoting grandfather, who is played with seething intensity by Will LeBow. Early in the play, Jacob declares: “If this life leads to a revolution, it’s a good life. Otherwise it’s for nothing.’’ He tends to speak in absolutist terms, but what makes LeBow’s performance so compelling is that it’s clear that for all Jacob’s fervent denunciations of capitalists, he reserves his most damning verdict for himself, for not doing more to bring about the change he has long espoused.
Jacob’s political pronouncements greatly exasperate Bessie, his middle-aged daughter. Lori Wilner’s portrayal of Bessie skillfully conveys the sense of a woman who is always playing offense and defense at the same time. Bessie’s own view of life has been circumscribed by circumstance. Jobs are scarce, money is tight, and her husband, Myron (David Wohl), is an ineffectual figure who drifts through his days in a cloud of befuddlement. Scruples matter less to Bessie than survival. She is fiercely and unapologetically pragmatic, even ruthless, in exerting her will when it comes to her children, Hennie (Annie Purcell) and Ralph (Michael Goldsmith), both of whom are in their 20s and still living at home.
When Bessie almost literally sniffs out a secret Hennie has been hiding, the mother instantly comes up with a solution that involves a recent immigrant, Sam (Nael Nacer). This is not a happy development for a boarder in the Bergers’ home who is in love with Hennie: Moe Axelrod, who lost a leg in World War I and is played by Eric T. Miller with a raffish, rough-edged charm. Moe always seems to be around, shrewdly appraising the family’s machinations and offering mordant observations.
Rounding out the contentious family portrait is Uncle Morty (Stephen Schnetzer), Jacob’s son and Bessie’s brother, a hard-charging businessman who has nothing but amused contempt for his father’s political beliefs. But Jacob and his grandson Ralph enjoy a special closeness (“Go out and fight so life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills,’’ the old man exhorts him) that will eventually, in one of the key episodes in “Awake and Sing!,’’ lead to drastic action by one of them.
Exceptional scenic design is one of the Huntington’s hallmarks, and James Noone’s set for “Awake and Sing!’’ is no exception. The Bergers’ fastidious home is a monument to Bessie’s tireless efforts and her skill at image management, while behind and above their dining room rise two levels of apartment doors and windows. It suggests both the hemmed-in environment they live in and maybe, just maybe, the possibility of escape.