Review: The Outgoing Tide (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

Northlight creates a compassionate, witty world premiere

     
     

John Mahoney (Gunner), Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed (Peg)

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
   
The Outgoing Tide
   
Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
at North Shore Center the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $30-$50  |  more info 

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The shock of a loved one turning into a bewildered stranger—that’s the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease. Like the wrath of God, in this new work it’s visited on a small family living on the shore of the Chesapeake. But it could easily be any in the audience. That’s one reason The Outgoing Tide, an effective world premiere from Northlight Theatre, is as much a rehearsal for the future as theater can offer. The other is the utter honesty of BJ Jones casting and staging.

John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).Author Bruce Graham compassionately and wittily considers his play’s ongoing crisis—a father’s senility as a permanent impairment—from all sides. It’s wrenching to hear as confident an actor as John Mahoney, Chicago icon, suddenly descend into the depths of a terminal brain malfunction. His Gunner Concannon is a shanty-Irish success, a blue-collar trucker used to getting his way. But time is taking a daily toll: his tested but true wife Peg (down-to-earth Rondi Reed) faces “a new battle every day.” Gunner repeats himself, can’t remember basic information, recalls the past perfectly but forgets yesterday or who he’s with, and wanders away, helpless to return.

But, unlike Alzheimer patients in the later stages, Gunner can feel and taste his diminishing returns, enough to propose a terrifying idea to Peg and his son Jack (himself facing two other family crises, divorce and alienation from his teenage son). Like Willie Loman before him, Gunner will arrange an accident. The $2.4 million payout from this self-administered euthanasia will free himself from dependency and diapers in a hateful hospice, give Peg the comfortable future that that expense would have negated, and enable Gunner to open the restaurant he’s always dreamed of. But it has to be tomorrow because the future’s not on Gunner’s side: With winter approaching, a boat heading out will soon stand out.

Much of the play deals with the denial and panic triggered by Gunner’s decision to take his boat out and plunge himself into the “outgoing tide.” Peg despairs that, with Gunner gone, she’ll have no one to care for, though Jack (Thomas J. Cox, looking as bewildered as you’d expect) will need her even more now. Jack hates the thought that his dream depends on his dad’s death.

     
Rondi Reed (Peg) and John Mahoney (Gunner). Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and John Mahoney (Gunner).
Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed Peg). John Mahoney (Gunner). Rondi Reed (Peg) and in the background Thomas J. Cox (Jack) in Northlight Theatre's "The Outgoing Tide" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. Rondi Reed Peg) and Thomas J. Cox (Jack)

Clearly, this is no “On Golden Pond,” full of sentimental banter (“you old poop”) and analogies to lost loons. (It’s a lot more like Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother,” where a suicide looms over, and finally finishes, the action.) There’s enough humor (what if a demented man, bent on murder-suicide, forgets to commit the second crime?) to leaven the loaf. The particulars of this beleaguered family are balanced against the universal plight that we’re all clocks fated to run down until we tick no longer. Flashbacks fill us in on a marriage that clearly grew from love into, well, whatever is left now.

Spry and game, Mahoney brings an energetic actor’s instincts to a part that doesn’t always need them. His sheer spryness somewhat blunts the seriousness of Gunner’s losing game, but it also makes his sudden losses of reality all the more wrenching. Reed exudes a feisty practicality that, alas, is useless in this family calamity. Cox depicts how cherished memories turn toxic when their source is no longer the person you grew up with.

Yes, The Outgoing Tide is definitely a promissory note for crises to come. See it now before the tide comes back.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thomas J. Cox (Jack), John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).

Performances: through June 19th, with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays 2:30 and 7:00pm. (some variations may occur – check website for exact performance info)  Tickets: Tickets are $40-$50, and can be purchased by phone (847-673-6300) or online at www.northlight.org. Location: All performances take place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (map).

     
     

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Review: Sense and Sensibility (Northlight Theatre)

     
      

An enchanting happily-ever-after saga

  
  

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 017

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Sense and Sensibility
  
Adapted and Directed by Jon Jory
Based on the novel by Jane Austen
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through April 27  |  tickets: $40-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One sister driven by passions.  One sister steering by intellect. Eighteenth century husband-shopping rips the heart with mind games.  Northlight Theatre presents the world-premiere of Sense and Sensibility from the book by Jane Austen.  The death of their father leaves the Dashwood sisters financially-strapped.  Without a proper dowry, marriage prospects dwindle.  Still, the sisters muse potential suitors.  Marianne falls quickly and hard for her dashing rescuer.  Elinor connects wittingly with  her sister-in-law’s brother.  Love gets complicated when ‘marrying for money‘ cashes in on the sisters‘ happiness.  Sense and Sensibility is love by the book…Austen style.

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 008Jon Jory puts his heart and head into a complicated adaptation.  The Austen novel has a bounty of characters with complex lineages speaking in formal prose.  Directing the adaptation too, Jory devises a dynamic play boasting multiple love stories.  On a simplistic set (scenic designer Tom Burch), Jory smoothly and quickly moves in or out chairs, love seats, even a buffet table to show location changes.  (Kudos to stage manager Laura D. Glenn for the ever-shifting action cued up by a piece of furniture or article of clothing).  Jory orchestrates a page-turner pace with a mega-talented cast.

In the leads, these sisters are perfectly novel to the plot.  Helen Sadler (Marianne) is delightfully impulsive and lively.  Sadler punches up the humor with brutal assessments of people’s virtues.  Heidi Kettenring (Elinor) is lovely as the reserved sister.  In contrast to Sadler’s exaggerated drama, Kettenring contains her emotions with subtle nuisances:  clasped hands, half-smile, dead-pan delivery.  Kettenring delivers one of my favorite responses to an inquiry of her sister’s illness.  Kettenring dryly states, ‘she is a victim of expectations.’ Classic wit!  Their mother, Penny Slusher, is adorably maternal.  Slusher frets with a charming romantic simplicity.  Playing her sensibility contrast, Wendy Robie (Mrs. Jennings) is hilarious as the meddling wannabe marriage broker.  Robie zings delivering deliciously improper barbs without malice intent. 

     
Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 006 Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 014
Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 012 Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 016

The bevy of men make the husband selection difficult.  Greg Matthew Anderson (Willoughby) is dashingly charismatic. Anderson pulls on the heart strings as a drunken scoundrel with a hint of remorse.  His opposite, Jay Whittaker (Colonel Brandon) is quiet, handsome dignity.  Whittaker’s non-emotional and abrupt reactions are amusing and endearing.  Understudying the part of Edward Ferrars, Derek Czaplewski does a splendid job as the awkward and honorable man of engagement.  V Craig Heidenreich (Sir John Middleton) is a hearty serving of humorous hospitality. The entire, ever-moving, excellent ensemble performs and schlepps props for a sublime illustration.      

Sense and Sensibility is an enchanting happily-ever-after story.  As a woman with a little of both, the sophisticated dialogue is intellectually riveting and the known outcome still made me weepy.     

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
    
  

Sense and Sensibility - Northlight Theatre 013

Sense and Sensibility continues through April 27th, with performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30pm, and Wednesdays at 1pm. Tickets are $40-$45, and can be purchased online or by calling 847-673-6300.  More info at www.northlight.org. Running time:  Two hours and thirty minutes with a fifteen minute intermission.

3 words: A newbie to Austen’s tale, Jasleen describes it with ‘dear sisterly love.’

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REVIEW: Eclipsed (Northlight Theatre)

  
  

Fighting for decency, if not dignity

  
  

Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed

  
Northlight Theatre presents
  
Eclipsed
  
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Hallie Gordon
at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $30-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Written in 2009 and featuring an all-female cast, this trenchantly topical drama brings to death—and life—the Liberian civil war as seen—and, more crucially, felt–by its most blatant victims/victors. These are women, specifically the four “wives” of a rebel officer in 2003. All but imprisoned in a compound in Bomi County, these polygamous Penelope Walker (Rita) and Alana Arenas (Helena) - Eclipsed at Northlightspouses of a commander of the LURD faction have managed to find a “separate peace” despite the bloodshed and the loss of everything that used to be normal.

Their survival strategies suggest many more coping mechanisms than the specific stories of four wives and the female peacekeeper who visits their bastion to offer them a way out. Hallie Gordon’s powerfully present staging keeps it so real (alas, even in the accents) that the intermission seems a rude reminder that it’s a play after all.

Helena (Alana Arenas, with the dignity of a demigoddess) is the #1 wife, too comfortable in her lockstep reliance on the unseen “husband.” Tamberla Perry is fire and fury as Maima, the second concubine, who has become a soldier in her warlord’s band and finds in her rifle the only strength she can muster in this misogynistic mess of an army camp. As Rita, the constantly pregnant third member of the harem, Penelope Walker finds a kind of security in her sheer fecundity.

As “The Girl,” the newest wife (#4) and still virtually a girl, Paige Collins is heartbreaking as the most innocent victim. Gradually this recruit, who entertains the others by being able to read about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky (to them, his #2 wife), is seduced by Maima into becoming a killer herself, looting clothes and jewelry from the unfortunate bystanders she exploits. She can no longer remember what her mother looked like but, clinging to what memories remain, renames herself “Mother’s Blessing” as a kind of reflexive homage.

Finally, there’s Bessie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), the odd woman out. An educated business woman searching for her missing daughter, she is now a
Red Cross peacekeeper who’s trying to broker a cease fire with the constantly shifting rebel factions. More directly, she offers the women a chance to remember their past—before rapes and murders became a way of death—and even contemplate a future.

        
Leslie Ann Sheppard (seated), Alana Arenas (standing) - Eclipsed Paige Collins (The Girl) in Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre Paige Collins (The Girl) and Alana Arenas (Helena) in Northlight Eclipsed 2
Paige Collins, Alana Arenas, Tamberla Perry, Leslie Ann Sheppard - Eclipsed Leslie Ann Sheppard, Alana Arenas, Paige Collins - Eclipsed at Northlight Theatre

Interestingly, it’s only at the end of Eclipsed, when the rebels’ sour victory against the thuggish Charles Taylor (currently being tried for war crimes and human rights abuses) leads to a king of peace that we even learn the real names of these interrupted lives. It’s heartbreaking to watch these four “Mother Courages” give up all spousal rivalries, break their wartime habits, and try to assume something like civilian lives. (well, not all succeed.)

What are they fighting for? They never really know. What matters is the sisterly solidarity that compensates for so much austerity and adversity. The sheer range of the characterizations never registers more than in the scene where, stage right, Maima is showing The Girl how to shoot a gun, while, on the other side, Bessie teaches Helena how to write the letter “A” in the sand.

So much of humanity lies between the literal sides of this stage.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alana Arenas, Penelope Walker, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Paige Collins - Eclipsed

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REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 001

   
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 006 The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 002

All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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REVIEW: Daddy Long Legs (Northlight Theatre)

 

Tuneless letter reading makes a dull ‘Daddy’

 

Robert Adelman Hancock and Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
Daddy Long Legs
    
Music/Lyrics by Paul Gordon,
Book by
John Caird
Directed by John Caird
North Shore Center for Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
Through October 24  |  
Tickets: $45–55  |   more info 

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Based on a lively, epistolary, young-adult novel written in 1912 by Jean Webster, Northlight Theatre’s regional premiere Daddy Long Legs centers on Jerusha Abbott, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," who unexpectedly earns the offer to attend college sponsored by one of the orphanage trustees. That thrusts her into a world she’s never before known.

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Webster’s story indeed has long legs — the author turned it into a stage play that ran on Broadway in 1914. Mary Pickford starred in a silent movie version in 1919, and the 1935 Shirley Temple film “Curly Top” was rooted in that film. A British stage musical called Love from Judy opened in 1952 and ran for two years, and Fred Astaire starred in a 1955 Hollywood musical version. It’s since become a Japanese animation and a Korean film. 

In Webster’s version of the tale, Jerusha details her collegiate adventures in a series of charming and unaffected letters to her carefully anonymous and unresponsive benefactor, "Mr. Smith," whom she nicknames "Daddy-Long-Legs." Although we may have our suspicions, readers don’t find out who Smith really is until Jerusha does — nearly at the end of the novel. Webster’s novel evolves into a romance, but lots of its charm comes from Jerusha’s descriptions of her hijinks at school. The dissatisfying new chamber musical by Paul Gordon and John Caird gives us little of that, concentrating on the incipient love affair.

We learn from the outset that Smith is really one Jervis Pendleton, a much younger man than Jerusha believes, and we watch as he falls in love through the mails and plots to meet his plucky protege. That removes most of the mystery and suspense.

For example, in the novel, we are as mystified as Jerusha when her sponsor won’t permit her to spend the summer in the Adirondacks with her college roommate, while the musical makes it clear his objection is to the roomie’s handsome brother.

Played by Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock, Jerusha and Jervis are the only characters. The focus remains on Jerusha and her letters, which she sings. While Daddy Long Legs isn’t quite a sung-through musical, these recitatives make up much of the play. McGinnis has a sweet voice and Hancock, who mainly sings backup, does fine, but the songs are undistinguished and Gordon’s score largely tuneless.

David Farley’s set is, for unknown reasons, littered with luggage, with a central moat full of suitcases and trunks that the actors keep circling, somewhat dizzily, though Jervis spends most of his time stuck rear stage in a book-lined office.

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Robert Adelman Hancock in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.
Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner. Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

Since the one-way nature of the correspondence prevents much back and forth between the two characters, the play becomes largely action-free. No matter how endearing, what makes for good narrative in a book becomes rather dull on stage. That might not matter so much if the music were more interesting, but as it is, the play needs more life and more people in it. In the novel, we get this though Jerusha’s rich descriptions of her friends and others she interacts with.

In the first song, "The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home," we get a little of this, as Jerusha mimics people at the orphanage. Had this kind of characterization continued through the musical, it might have worked. But from then on, the singing letters do more telling than showing. McGinnis’s charming and animated performance goes far to make up for this, but not far enough.

Moreover, for all its modernisms in terms of cast and staging, Daddy Long Legs seems overly old-fashioned and simple. A story aimed at young girls in 1912 rather lacks spice for adult audiences a century later.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Megan McGinnis in Northlight Theatre's "Daddy Long Legs". Photo by Jeanne Tanner.

 

 

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REVIEW: A Life (Northlight Theatre)

Strong performances aren’t enough

 

Matt Schwader (Desmond), John Mahoney (Drumm), Penny Slusher (Dorothy) and Joanne Dubach (Dolly)

 
Northlight Theatre presents
 
A Life
 
By Hugh Leonard
Directed by BJ Jones
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Everything ought to add up to a fine show at Northlight Theatre with its current production, Irish playwright Hugh Leonard’s 1979 drama, A Life: A world-renowned playwright … excellent performances from a skilled, high-powered cast, headed up by no less an actor than the acclaimed John Mahoney … careful staging from a seasoned director, BJ Jones. Yet it all adds up to a less-than-rewarding experience.

John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Kimbrough (Mary) Even the director calls it "a small story." For the little that happens, it’s very slow-moving and very talky — all in a thick Irish brogue that muddies comprehension even as it adds authenticity. Jones, in the program, quotes Leonard: "Being an Irish writer both helps and hampers me. Hampers, because one is fighting the preconceptions of audiences who have been conditioned to expect both feyness and parochial subject matter; helps, because the writer can use a vigorous and poetic idiom which enables him to combine subtly with richness." The strong Irish tone in this production hampers more than it helps.

Leonard, known best for his Tony Award-winning related play, Da, died last year, and I assume that inspired this production, although Jones’ program notes say he’s been "toting around" this play since the ’70s. Jones clearly sees it as a vehicle for Mahoney, who plays the central character, Desmond Drumm.

The play takes Drumm, a secondary character in Leonard’s Da, and puts him front and center. At the end of his life, Drumm is taking stock. He’s spent a career as a civil servant in a tiny Irish town near Dublin, and now, he says, "I need to know what I amount to."

Not much. He’s a bitter, acerbic, judgmental old man. He hasn’t spoken to his closest friends for a half dozen years. His wife is afraid of him. His sense of self-importance, intellectual snobbery and curmudgeonliness have set him at odds with the warm-hearted, informal society in which he lives. He hates his job, but after a poor showing in his youth, he’s never dared reach for the political career he once aspired to.

Robert Belushi (Lar) and Matt Schwader (Desmond) Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and John Mahoney (Drumm)
Seated_ Melanie Keller (Mibs) and Matt Schwader (Desmond).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Robert Belushi (Lar), Matt Schwader (Desmond), Joanne Dubach (Dolly) and Melanie Keller (Mibs) Bradley Armacost and Robert Belushi - Kearns_Lar

The play shifts back and forth between the Drumm of 1977 and the Drumm of 1937, taking with it his wife, Dolly, played alternately by Penny Slusher, as a worried, browbeaten but lovingly supportive spouse, and Joanne Dubach, as an eager young woman whom the priggish younger Drumm, portrayed dynamically by Matt Schwader, shows little interest in.

He’s in love — both ineffectually and patronizingly — with Mary, played strongly in youth by Melanie Keller and even more sharply in later life by Linda Kimbrough. She, however, marries the rather loutish and devil-may-care, but affectionate Lar Kearns, portrayed as a young man by a vigorous Robert Belushi and in older life by a hearty Bradley Armacost.

The two couples nonetheless have maintained a lifetime friendship, broken by a rift six years before the outset of the play. In his stocktaking, Drumm goes to visit the Kearnses, somewhat grudgingly, to make up the quarrel, and put himself back on good terms with Mary, the one person for whom he feels respect. Gradually, Drumm — as self-critical as he is fault-finding of others — comes to realize what he’s shut himself away from.

Yet it doesn’t make us like him any better.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

A free, related panel discussion, "How the Irish Saved Theatre: The Legacy of Irish Plays and Playwrights," takes place at Northlight at noon Saturday, April 10. Reservations required at (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555.

Seated_ Penny Slusher (Dorothy).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm), Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and Bradley

 

            

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: ★★★★

 

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