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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 1.24.08




Singin' Bout Revolution

The VLT takes on an American classic

BY SUZI STEFFEN

How much do the children of immigrants owe to the sacrifices of their parents? How does an acting troupe recreate a time when a telephone was a luxury and a room of one's own merely a dream? And why is a community theater in Eugene trying to bring to life 1930s working-class Jewish life in the Bronx?

Jake (Bary Shaw), Marty (Fred Gorelick) and Hennie (Zoe Grobart). PHOTO: JOHN BAUGUESS

The Very Little Theatre addresses the first question and gives the other two tasks a tremendous try in its production of Awake and Sing!, the most famous and successful play of socialist playwright Clifford Odets. If the pacing and some of the acting aren't quite up to the task of recreating the faded, cramped atmosphere of the script, that's not surprising. And though the effort shines through, what doesn't quite occur might be more important: Is the play relevant? This show doesn't make that clear, which is regrettable, for issues of intergenerational conflict and the price of breaking dreams couldn't be more relevant to our recession-prone, immigrant-bashing times.

Right-wingers call Odets' work mere propaganda, but that's far from the case in this play. The story of the Berger family depends more on the personal and less on the political. Unfortunately, some of those personalities couldn't be more annoying.

That's especially true of the parents, Bessie (Penta Swanson) and Myron (Steve Mandell). Swanson exaggerates a beat too long with every gesture and every statement. True, Bessie should be an overwhelming, smothering character, and some in the audience won't be familiar with the New York Jewish mother stereotype, but that's no reason to embellish her character quite so much. Director James Aday needs to reel in this hyperbole. And he needs to help Mandell overcome his self-conscious tics and settle into a more generous interpretation of the weak-willed Myron. Right now, neither character earns audience sympathy, and that's surely not what Odets intended.

Bessie's father Jacob (Bary Shaw), a Russian immigrant who believes in solidarity and redemption, says early on, "If this life leads to revolution, it's a good life." He means the Great Depression, the life that's forcing evictions in their street every day, the life that terrifies Bessie. But he also means his own life, the one he's leading as the constantly abused, poverty-stricken elder trying to enjoy his books and music in his small room for which his capitalist son Morty (Fred Gorelick) pays Bessie. Meanwhile, his whiny grandson Ralph (Kory Weimar) sleeps on the daybed, and his lushly pretty but frustrated granddaughter Hennie (Zoe Grobart) fends off the attention of indolent boarder Moe (Patric Knight) and hapless but hardworking Sam (Greg Gumbs).

Shaw's the strongest actor of those living in the apartment, at ease on stage, calm and comfortable in his skin. But Grandpa Jake shouldn't be quite as relaxed and thoughtful as Shaw indicates; after all, the man as written can't even defend himself against the insults of his daughter or the jibes of his successful and wealthy son. As that son — well-to-do, self-satisfied Uncle Morty — Fred Gorelick best suits his part. His venality, his ability to disregard and run roughshod over others in his pursuit of the almighty dollar, his sleek appearance and his rapacious appetites all create the portrait Odets wanted us to see of a conniving, scheming union-buster who would even sell out his nephew.

Several central plot points press upon modern audiences our luck in having medical options, privileges, material goods, an ability to communicate instantly. But the necessity of making hard choices about survival, about breaking free of familial constraints while remaining humane, about pursuing an American dream in the midst of economic uncertainty — those haven't changed. In the play, the perennial and particularly American belief in forging destiny means tossing away the advice, the sacrifices and even the love of previous generations. Should you see the play? If you've made out all right in the capitalist economy and have some patience for slow pacing, then go, consider the issues and, perhaps, undergo your own awakening.

Awake and Sing! runs through Feb. 9. Tix available at www.thevlt.com or 344-7751. Two Talk-Back sessions run on Thursday, Jan. 31, and Monday, Feb. 3, for those who want to hear more about the play's setting.'