The play’s refrain echoes over the audience, as though repeating the words enough times will make it true: “Make it so life ain’t printed on dollar bills.”
More than a play, Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing! — now running at UO’s University Theatre — is a moving lesson in economic theory cloaked in the domestic passions of one Depression Era working class family. Through a series of raging family conflicts, the gaping flaws in capitalism are exposed and chewed over. Dark secrets are revealed, dreams are crushed and everyone behaves badly, though in the end everything circles back to one family gripped in the claws of economic necessity.
Odets assembles and shuffles his characters to best expose the human offspring of laissez-faire capitalism. From the bootstrap businessman Uncle Morty (Steve Wehmeier) to the Marxist-espousing Grandpa (a marvelous Jonas D. Israel) to the opportunistic, quasi-legit war veteran Moe (Kyle Leibovitch), everyone has his angle on money, and all have their failings.
Erica Jorgensen emerges as a serious young talent in the role of Bessie, the domineering mother whose anger, fear and disappointment are like a whirlpool, sucking everyone in. Just when Bessie has monopolized the hatred of the audience she reveals a flash of smothered humanity, and her actions become the fault of the world that’s trapped her. Playing her son with palpable desperation is Ryan Dougherty.
Colin Lawrence’s inspired set works to box in all these characters; splitting the audience down the middle is the narrow, crowded apartment, with dark ceiling molding hanging oppressively over the action.
Director Damond Morris’ production is conscientiously relevant, comparing the caged family with today’s designated “99 percent” left out in the cold by severe economic inequality. Morris is right to do this, of course, but the comparison isn’t right on. Odets wrote Awake and Sing! in 1935, when American capitalism was in freefall. Socialism is a legitimate option for the play’s characters, for instance, and a young woman’s “happy” ending involves a man who has recently threatened to break her arm. But the message, that life shouldn’t be centered on the dollar bill, still stands firm.
Awake and Sing! runs Jan. 26-Feb. 4 at University Theatre; http://tickets.uoregon.edu/theater/