REVIEW: Awake and Sing (Northlight Theatre)

Dynamic ‘Awake and Sing’ nothing to sling oranges at

 Nussbaum, Gold, Whittaker

Northlight Theatre presents

Awake and Sing


By Clifford Odets
Directed by Amy Morton
At the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie
Through Feb. 28 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

On Broadway, the original, 1935 production of Awake and Sing ran for 120 performances and fixed Clifford Odets‘ reputation as a playwright to reckon with. Chicago audiences were not so impressed. "They threw oranges and apples. I was hit by a grapefruit," recalled Group Theatre actress Phoebe Brand.

Nussbaum, Lazerine, Troy, Gold v From today’s viewpoint, it’s hard to see why — except that, if you still had the price of a theater ticket in Depression-era Chicago, you likely weren’t too sympathetic to the play’s anti-establishment attitudes. The message blurs somewhat in Northlight Theatre‘s powerful revival of this blackly humorous hard-times drama, yet the play still stands on the side of the working class, documenting the warring of capitalism vs. socialism, plodding resignation vs. revolutionary fervor, and long-range hope vs. live-for-today fatalism among them.

Titled for the line from Isaiah, "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead," the play recounts the Depression-era struggles of three generations of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, Jewish family, all crammed into a Bronx apartment. We come on them quarrelling over the dining-room table, clashing over politics and personal lives in a manner no less heated for its habitualness.

Central to nearly every dispute, Cindy Gold’s feisty, belligerent Bessie Berger dominates the play, much as her character does her family. Bossy and bitter, Mama Berger rules her clan with fiercely protective, unsentimental tough love. She pinches pennies and prods and castigates her household, doing as she believes she must, while proudly keeping her home spic and span, her children healthy and always a bowl of fruit on the table, if only apples. "Here without a dollar you don’t look the world in the eye. Talk from now to next year — this is life in America," she asserts.

In the production’s main flaw, John Musial’s overly spacious set gives us little impression of the family’s financial struggle. Bessie may be a notable balabusta, but there should be overt signs of shabbiness, patching up, making do, and the cramped confinement of the characters should be mirrored in a constrained space. Musial’s solution — an overhang above the stage — is annoyingly distracting to the audience in the theater’s higher tiers without giving us the sense of overcrowding it was meant to do.

Lazerine, Francis Francis, Whittaker

When her restless and unhappy adult daughter, Hennie, gets sick, Bessie’s first thought is for a doctor. When Hennie turns up pregnant, Bessie immediately begins conniving for a husband for her — running roughshod over Hennie’s own desires but intent on her greater good.

Likewise, she actively opposes her 21-year-old son, Ralph’s, romance with a penniless and orphaned girl — unknowingly allying with her father, Jacob. Though more sympathetic, Jacob also fears Ralph will barter away his potential for an early and indigent marriage, and tells him, "Go out and fight so that life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills."

Bessie rages at her father and bullies him, yet makes him a home and brags about his brains to an outsider, the janitor Schlosser, portrayed by Tim Gittings. Veteran Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum plays a restrained Jacob, a feeble, old "man who had golden opportunities but drank instead a glass tea." He’s still fixed on Marxist idealism but always a talker, not a doer. He frets at his daughter’s domineering ways, but gives in to her, even as he urges Ralph to defiance.

Ralph wants to make something of himself, but in Keith Gallagher’s hands he’s a moony dreamer, like his henpecked father, Myron, prompting Jacob to tell Ralph, "Boychick, wake up!" Myron Berger, played with mousy bewilderment by Peter Kevoian, went to law school for two years but wound up spending his life as a haberdashery clerk.

Audrey Francis’ fitful Hennie is hard to fathom, giving us few clues as to what motivates her. It’s as if she gave up on life before the play began and just lives on bile. Since she doesn’t know what she wants from life, she’s a pushover for any strong personality, from her mother to Moe Axelrod, the cynical, one-legged war veteran and small-time racketeer who becomes a family boarder. Jay Whittaker’s alternately snarky and passionate Moe provides a keen counterpoint to the mulish and strident Bergers.

Gold, Gallagher Gallagher, Nussbaum at table, h

Straddling the Bergers’ inner and outer worlds is Loren Lazerine‘s smugly complacent Uncle Morty, Bessie’s brother, a well-to-do garment manufacturer, who hands out largesse to his struggling relatives as if he were giving a dog a treat. On the other hand, we have Demetrios Troy’s inchoate and inarticulate Sam Feinschreiber, the greenhorn who marries Hennie and who shows us Bessie’s innate charisma by being almost as devoted to his fierce mother-in-law as to his disdainful, unappreciative wife.

Director Amy Morton ably brings out the realistic depth of these characters, in all their clannish divisiveness, and effectively highlights Odets’ rich and street-smart language. There’s plenty to mull on in this intense production. Yet for all that Artistic Director B.J. Jones writes in the program of the 1930s economic crisis in which this play was born and the current one that inspired him to mount it, Morton’s vision focuses less on the stress and politics of the world events outside the Bergers’ apartment than on the overwrought family dynamics within it.

Perhaps she feared conservatives armed with fruit.


Rating: ★★★★


CAST (in alphabetical order)

Audrey Francis (Hennie Berger)
Keith Gallagher (Ralph Berger)
Tim Gittings (Schlosser)
Cindy Gold (Bessie Berger)
Peter Kevoian (Myron Berger)
Loren Lazerine (Uncle Morty)
Mike Nussbaum (Jacob)
Demetrios Troy (Sam Feinschriber)
Jay Whittaker (Moe Axelrod)



Amy Morton (Director)
John Musial (Set Design)
Jacqueline Firkins (Costume Design)
Keith Parham (Lighting Design)
Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager)
Meghan Beals McCarthy (Production Dramaturg)


Audrey FrancisAudrey Francis (Hennie Berger) is incredibly grateful to be making her Northlight debut with Awake and Sing!.  Audrey recently appeared in Talking Pictures and The Actor at the Goodman Theatre.  Other Chicago credits include: Another Part of the Forest, Othello (Writers’ Theatre); Desire Under the Elms (The Hypocrites);  Imagining Brad (Pine Box Theatre); Recent Tragic Events, The Violet Hour (Uma Productions); and a Jeff-nominated performance in The Credeaux Canvas (Circle Theatre).  She has also worked at Victory Gardens, Noble Fool and Steppenwolf.  Film and television credits include: Chicago Overcoat, Dustclouds, Donnie Brasco, Just Act Normal and ER.  Audrey is the co-owner of Black Box Acting Studio, a new conservatory for actors.  Thank you to Amy, Lea, the Bar Method and everyone at Black Box Acting Studio.

Keith GallagherKeith Gallagher (Ralph Berger) is thrilled to return to Northlight, where he appeared last season in The Lieutenant of Inishmore.  Chicago credits: Shining City (Goodman), Arcadia (Court Theatre), The Real Thing (Remy Bumppo Theatre), Tracks (TUTA Chicago – Viaduct and Chopin productions), and The Boxcar Children (Chicago Playworks).  Regionally, he appeared in The Lieutenant of Inishmore with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.  He attended The Theatre School at DePaul University and is a nationally certified EMT.  Thanks to all for coming.

Tim GittingsTim Gittings (Schlosser) is thrilled to be returning to Northlight Theatre.  He was last seen as an understudy going on for two different roles in The Miser.  Chicago credits include work with The Goodman Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Stage Left, and Circle Theatre.  Mr. Gittings’ regional credits include two seasons with American Players Theatre; five seasons with Door Shakespeare; and The Winter’s Tale, A Christmas Carol, Twelfth Night, All My Sons, and Coriolanus at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.  He would like to thank his wife, Ellie, for her love and support.

Cindy GoldCindy Gold (Bessie Berger) Recent work includes Twelfth Night at Notre Dame Shakespeare, directed by David H. Bell; Frank Galati’s Arsenic and Old Lace; Moises Kaufman’s workshop of 33 Variations with About Face/Tectonic Theatre; Frank Galati and Stephen Flaherty’s new musical Loving Repeating (Jeff Award) with About Face/MCA; Northlight’s Pride and Prejudice; Next Theatre‘s The Misanthrope; Victory GardensThe Glamour House; and Desire Under the Elms co-produced by Court Theatre and Freedom Repertory in Philadelphia, PA.  She has appeared with Madison Rep, Shakespeare Sedona, Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Boston Shakespeare, Peninsula Players, and Mental Floss Improvisation, Miami.  Dialect coaching includes the national tour of Saturday Night Fever; Regina and Robert Altman’s A Wedding, both at Lyric Opera of Chicago; and A Skull in Connemara here at Northlight Theatre.  Cindy is an Associate Professor of Theatre and Head of Acting at Northwestern University.  She was seen on TNT’s new show, Leverage, last fall.

Peter KevoianPeter Kevoian (Myron Berger) Recent Chicago credits include: The Christmas Schooner (TATC), Aladdin (Chicago Shakespeare), the title role of "Screwtape" in The Screwtape Letters (Mercury), The Wizard in Wicked (Broadway in Chicago), and Tateh in Ragtime under the direction of Frank Galati (Jeff nomination).  Mr. Kevoian marked his Broadway debut in the revival of Zorba with Anthony Quinn.  Other credits include Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar (National Tour Revival), The Phantom of the Opera (original Broadway cast), Sunset Boulevard (original Canadian cast), Cats and Les Miserables (Los Angeles company).  TV credits include LA Law, All My Children, The Guardian, McMillan, Cheers, Matlock, Becker and E.R.  Proud member of Actors Equity Association since 1973.  For John and Jean…and the Kevoian family!

Loren LazerineLoren Lazerine (Uncle Morty) returns to the Chicago stage after 14 years on the west coast.  Los Angeles theatre credits:  All My Sons (Geffen Playhouse), Adam’s Rib (LA Theatre Works), Killer Joe (Lost Angels Theatre Company – Winner of five LA Ovation Awards), and Heart of a Dog (Lillian Theatre), among others.  Loren was the first mainstage cabbie in Famous Door’s long-running Hellcab, with runs at Organic Theatre, Ivanhoe Theatre, two LA productions, Edinburgh Theatre Festival, and a tour of Israel.  Chicago credits: Julius Caesar (Next Theatre), Holy Ghosts (Shattered Globe), Never Come Morning (Prop Theatre), Glengarry Glen Ross and Are You Now or Have You Ever Been (Big Game Theatre, directed by Anna D. Shapiro).  Film: Fast and Furious 4, The Big Tease, Asylum, Boogie Nights.  TV: Frasier, CSI, Pushing Daisies, Las Vegas, Gilmore Girls, among others.  Upcoming: A Streetcar Named Desire at Writers’ Theatre, directed by David Cromer.  Thanks to Amy, BJ, Tracy and Nicole.  

Mike NussbaumMike Nussbaum (Jacob) has appeared in or directed a long list of plays here at Northlight.  Most recently he was seen on this stage in Better Late.  Other appearances at Northlight include Grace, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, Hearts, Visiting Mr. Green, Quartermaine’s Terms, Don Juan in Hell, Someone to Watch Over Me, The Old Neighborhood, and The Belmont Avenue Social Club. Recently he played Hamm in Beckett’s Endgame and Donny in Mamet’s American Buffalo at the American Theater Company, Shelley Levine in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross at Steppenwolf, and John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He has appeared with the Grant Park Symphony and Chorus as the Narrator of Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish, and with the Steppenwolf production of Glengarry Glen Ross at the Dublin Theatre Festival.  He will soon appear in Taming of the Shrew at Chicago Shakespeare.

Demetrios TroyDemetrios Troy (Sam Feinschreiber) makes his Northlight Theatre debut.  He holds a BA from DePaul University/Barat College and an MFA from the University of South Carolina.  Credits include: Richard III, Short Shakespeare! Romeo and Juliet (Chicago Shakespeare); Julius Caesar (Utah Shakespearean Festival); Understudy for Aerial and Ferdinand in The Tempest (Steppenwolf); Edmund in King Lear, and The Merry Wives of Windsor (Riverside Shakespeare); and Tartuffe and King Lear (Milwaukee Repertory Theater).  Upcoming credits include The Good Negro (Goodman Theatre).

Jay WhittakerJay Whittaker (Moe Axelrod) makes his Northlight Theatre debut.  In New York, Jay played Lloyd Wright in Frank’s Home (Playwrights Horizons Theatre) and Richard Duke of Gloucester in Rose Rage (The Duke on 42nd St).  Regionally, he played Kent in Edward II and Calipine in Tamburlaine the Great (The Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington D.C.); Ian in Shining City (Huntington Theatre Company).  Chicago credits include: The Wild Duck, The Glass Menagerie, Cyrano, Travesties, and The Romance Cycle (Court); Shining City and Frank’s Home (Goodman); David Copperfield and Mother Courage and Her Children (Steppenwolf); A Number directed by BJ Jones (Next); Ghetto (Famous Door Theatre Company); Merchant of Venice, Loves Labours Lost, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, Rose Rage and All’s Well That Ends Well (Chicago Shakespeare Theatre), as well as both parts of Henry IV, which were performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon.  TV credits: Prison Break, Early Edition.  Film: Let’s Go To Prison, Death of a President, Dustclouds.

Amy Morton (Director) is a director, actor and member of Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  At Steppenwolf she has directed: American Buffalo, Dublin Carol (also at Trinity Rep Theatre), The Pillowman, The Dresser, Topdog/Underdog (which traveled to the Alley Theatre and the Dallas Theatre Center), Glengarry Glen Ross (which traveled to both the Dublin and Toronto Theatre Festivals), We All Went Down to Amsterdam, The Weir, Mizlansky/Zalinski, and Love, Lies, Bleeding (which traveled to the Kennedy Center).  She directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Alliance Theatre, and Our Country’s Good at the Remains Theatre.  Her most recent work as an actor was in the Steppenwolf production of August: Osage County in Chicago, London and on Broadway, and for which she received a Tony nomination.  Her latest film appearance is in Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air.

John Musial (Set Design) makes his Northlight scenic debut with this production.  Musial is a film & theatermaker who writes, directs, designs and makes stuff.  As a Lookingglass Ensemble member he has designed lights, sets, costumes and films, earning Jeff recognition for The Jungle, West, Eurydice, Great Men of Science, 1984 and Algren... As a writer/director with Lookingglass Theatre, John created Our Future Metropolis, The Great Fire and Nelson Algren: For Keeps and a Single Day.  In 2001 John re-directed and edited Algren as an hour-long television program for WTTW Channel 11 and was nominated for a regional Emmy.  Apart from Lookingglass, he has directed and designed projects with Redmoon, Local Infinities and ¡NOROOM!.  Musial holds a Master’s degree in Architecture from UIC and is currently working toward his professional license.

Jacqueline Firkins (Costume Design) is pleased to return to Northlight after designing for last season’s Grey Gardens.  Other design work includes sets and/or costumes for the Hartford Stage, Dallas Theatre Center, Portland Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Court Theatre, Chicago Children’s Theatre, Portland Stage Company, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Westport Playhouse, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, Idaho Shakespeare Festival, Shakespeare Festival of Tulane, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, Shakespeare & Company, Brave New Repertory, About Face Theatre Company, and Yale School of Drama.  Jacqueline is a faculty member at Loyola University of Chicago and is a Recipient of a 2001 Princess Grace Award.

Keith Parham (Lighting Design) Past Northlight productions include Po Boy Tango, Gee’s Bend, and Bad Dates.  He is a company member of TUTA Theatre, where recent credits include Maria’s Field, Romeo and Juliet, and Uncle Vanya.  Other credits include Homebody/Kabul (National Theatre in Belgrade, Serbia); Adding Machine: A Musical and Red Light Winter (off-Broadway); Gas for Less, Ghostwritten, and Joan Dark (Goodman); Carter’s Way, Sunset Limited, Red Light Winter, and The Glass Menagerie (Steppenwolf); Dying City, 9 Parts of Desire and The Adding Machine (Next Theatre, Associate Artist); Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead, A Minister’s Wife, and Nixon’s Nixon (Writers’ Theatre); Million Dollar Quartet (Dee Gee Theatricals at Goodman and The Apollo); Don’t Dress For Dinner and Russian On The Side (Royal George).  He has also designed for The Alley Theatre, Trinity Repertory, Milwaukee Shakespeare, Timeline Theatre (Associate Artist), Lookingglass Theatre Company, Chicago Dramatists, Chicago Opera Theatre, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, European Repertory Theatre, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and Theatre Wit, among others.

Mikhail Fiksel (Sound Design) is excited for his first venture with Northlight.  He is a member of Strawdog Theatre Company (where he recently received an AfterDark Award for Original Score, Old Town and a Jeff Award for Original Incidental Music, A Lie of the Mind) and Serendipity Theatre.  He is an Artistic Associate with Teatro Vista (Jeff Award for Sound Design, Blindmouth Singing) and Collaboraction (Orgie Award for Original Music, Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow).  Other recent projects include The Cabinet, Last of My Species, Winter Pageant Redux (Jeff Award Nomination for Sound Design) and Once Upon a Time (Redmoon Theatre); The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Living Green (Victory Gardens); El Grito del Bronx, Another Part of the House (Teatro Vista), Frankenstein, Oedipus (The Hypocrites), Jon (Collaboraction); The Cherry Orchard, R.U.R. (Strawdog); Stupid Kids (About Face); Maria’s Field, Romeo & Juliet and Uncle Vanya (TUTA); Fake Lake (Neofuturists); and various productions with Adventure Stage Chicago and Loyola University where he teaches Sound Design.

Rita Vreeland (Production Stage Manager) is delighted to be collaborating once again with the talented people at Northlight.  Previous Northlight stage management credits include last season’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Mauritius and Grey Gardens, as well as The Miser and Gee’s Bend.  Elsewhere, her recent credits include Footloose, The Christmas Schooner, Knute Rockne – All-American and many other productions at Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN; the world premieres of Free Man of Color and Court-Martial at Fort Devens, among others, for Victory Gardens Theatre; Once Upon a Time in New Jersey and Into the Woods at Marriott Lincolnshire; and 18 productions for Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park.  Rita has been the set designer at Harold Washington College since 2001 and is a member of the  Route 66 Theatre Company in Chicago.  She is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado and a proud member of Actors Equity.  Special thanks to the amazing Northlight crew!


*castlist and pictures courtesy of Northlight website


2 Responses

  1. […] trying to be — I’d give it four stars. But when I look at what four-star plays like "Awake and Sing" or "Out of Order" have invested in sets and costumes and playwrights, or the polish […]

  2. […] and Sing Northlight Theatre  (Feb 2010) By Clifford Odets Directed by Amy Morton our […]

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