Eugene Weekly : Theater : 1.10.08

Not So Little Ambitions
The VLT’s theater season thinks big

Don’t put down your planning calendar yet! There’s more affordable theater in the works, with tales of striving families, bickering families, wild holidays and wild grief coming up at Eugene’s Very Little Theatre.

VLT’s 2007 The Sisters Rosensweig

The VLT, a community organization with a dedicated board and a hardworking volunteer staff, continues its 79th (!) season with Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!

This 1935 classic should be as fresh and vital today as it was during the Great Depression, when Odets’ working-class characters struggled through the daily grind of life as they searched for a way to find the American Dream. This was the play that cemented Odets’ fame, and it has been revived on Broadway several times — most recently in 2006, when its message of immigrants working their tushes off in the midst of economic collapse was all too clearly connected to what’s happening 70 years after the play premiered.

Awake and Sing! connects ever so slightly to VLT’s season opener from last October, Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, through its awareness of social class and refusal of sentimentality (OK, Jacques Brel gives in at the end, but the rest of the songs have some bite). And, if you saw last season’s The Sisters Rosensweig, you might think of the history of the Rosensweig sisters, what their parents went through in order to give their daughters hope and opportunities (including the opportunities to spit on tradition, of course, and reject their religious and cultural heritage). Even in the Odets play, it’s clear that the central Berger family contains cracks and fissures as the children fight for dreams of their own — and economic necessities bear down on everyone. Awake and Sing! opens Jan. 18 and runs through Feb. 9.

With a much lighter tone, the VLT opens On the Razzle, Tom Stoppard’s farce about shop clerks on illicit holiday, March 28 (it runs through April 19). On the Razzle might sound familiar to those who know Thornton Wilder’s Merchant of Yonkers or The Matchmaker because the source material for all three is a 19th century play by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy. Stoppard’s wit combined with comedic heavy lifting by the cast and a gloriously sparkling set made On the Razzle a delight at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last season. I’m hoping the VLT can pull off the juggling necessary to make this play work without letting the actors harden into overly broad stereotypes (a real risk in community theater, one that director Chris Pinto should fight at every turn).

And just at the end of the rainy season when we long to remember the sun, the VLT opens The Memory of Water. It’s not related to the weather, of course, but to families and love and tragedy and the pain of loss. VLT does a far better job than any other theater in the area of providing solid, interesting roles for women, and Shelagh Stephenson’s “tragicomedy” serves that purpose well this season with its challenging roles for three sisters mourning the loss of their mother and disagreeing about family history while trying to deal with the present. Memory opens May 30 and runs through June 21, just as the sun breaks through the clouds and we all breathe a sigh of relief. The final VLT play of the season, Truman Capote’s Grass Harp, opens in August just before the other theaters’ seasons start again.