Sunday, January 18, 2009

Notes on Gamm Theatre's "Awake and Sing!"

In 1935 Clifford Odets wrote Awake and Sing!, which is about the fissures that split the Berger family as they cope with the turmoil of the Great Depression; it was a tremendous success in times not so unlike our own, but Odets's star has fallen in the decades since. On Sunday night we went to the Gamm Theatre to watch a revival of the show, considered by many to be his best work. It is a fascinating piece, demonstrating at once a virtuosic command of language and a servitude to ideology. The play reaches awesome peaks of intensity, sometimes despite itself, thanks to the cool guidance of director Fred Sullivan, Jr. and the brute muscle of the cast, especially veteran Sam Babbitt and recent Brown/Trinity Consortium alumna Diana Buirski. Babbitt plays Jacob, a rimy but resilient radical now living with his daughter and son-in-law, and their two nearly grown children, in a small New York apartment. Buirski plays his granddaughter Hennie, who is alternately feckless and fierce; her swings between resignation and rage provide the play's most interesting weather. Between one and the other, we melt or freeze. Her brother, Ralph (Marc Dante Mancini) can barely conceal his contempt for his mild father, and bridles under his mother's sanctimony and small dreams. This sort of dysfunction may be a hallmark of the American family drama, but I suspect that many audience members left, as I did, wanting to have felt more than emotional extremes; we missed the gradual hardening of resolve, the slow thaw of forgiveness, that mark the path to self-realization. What we get instead is event. The whole feels less than the sum of its parts--which is an awkward conclusion to draw from a play that ends with such pro-union fervor.

Awake and Sing!
is grounded in prophecy--its title is from the Book of Isaiah, but its real energy is from Das Kapital--and Odets seems to have adopted his antecedents' priorities: like them, he is more impressed by forces than by people. Or, perhaps, he is interested in individuals only insofar as they constitute, or are swept up by, forces larger than themselves. The problem with watching Awake and Sing! today is that it is not clear what these forces are. Odets, writing in the thick of the Great Depression and just fifteen years after Eugene Debs earned over six percent of the popular vote as the Socialist candidate for President, did not have to describe the vitiating pressures of capitalism or the putative restorative powers of socialism. The evidence of the one and faith in the other were abundant. Today we have the first but we lack the second; our indignation is, or has been, directed towards unscrupulous individuals and unregulated industries, not the operating ethics of capitalism itself. We are skeptical of revolution in this country, even in a winter of discontent.

It is not beyond Odets's power to awaken in us a revolutionary anger, but a whisper directly in our ear might make a better alarm than a clarion song. As it is, much of Awake and Sing! vibrates violently and at unfamiliar frequencies. The play begins loudly and gets louder, even while the menace of the world outside the Berger's apartment remains abstract. The audience, I think, needs to be welcomed into the 1930s more warmly; we have to be seduced, or lured, with character, into a trap of conscience. There is much to admire about the play, and much to enjoy in this interpretation of it, but I hope its exclamatory title does not continually lead it towards the intemperate, or the hyperventilative. What the show needs is not to be modernized but merely modulated; the actors must stir bewilderment into their boiling anger, in part because that is what we are feeling now, about our own times (What does this mean? we ask; How long can it go on?), in part because the audience will feel more comfortable with the show's conclusion when it seems contingent (i.e., the result of personal inquiry) rather than foreordained. (We might also hear more of Odets's idiosyncratic language, which must itself feel personal rather than inevitable; Odets unleashed an irreversible force on the American stage: urban, Jewish idiom.) The struggle to reproduce the breathlessness of the 1930s is a losing one--we know too well how the rush to form a Marxist state ends; the struggle to understand the tenor of those times and the dramatic expression of their energies might be more rewarding. The performance on Sunday was just a preview, and I'm sure as the show develops through its run a different music will emerge from it. But as long as Mr. Babbitt does not lose his wistful good humor, and Ms. Buirski does not lose her inarticulate intensity, the show has a ruminative melody and a discordant descant. This counterpoint alone makes the song worth hearing.

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