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by Robert Trussell for the KC Star

Last season Karen Paisley, artistic director of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, had a tough time deciding which American play from the 1930s she should produce — William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” or Clifford Odets’ “Awake and Sing!”

Aside from their vintage, the plays are similar in certain ways. Each is character-driven and evocative of a specific time and place. Paisley ultimately decided to stage Saroyan’s barroom dramatic comedy last season, managing a large cast in a style of playmaking that simply isn’t done anymore.

So this year she’s staging the Odets script, a three-act drama that unfolds in the Bronx apartment of a family of Jewish immigrants and their American-born children, which mirrored Odets’ own experience. The play opened in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, and the backdrop of economic instability parallels what some people are experiencing right now.

“It had been on my mind for some time,” Paisley said. “But whenever I got to the end reading it last year, I burst into tears. It is a tough play. He’s not rhapsodic, if you will. He’s strong medicine. He was certainly writing family drama with teeth before people were doing that.”

Paisley put together a talented group of actors, most of whom have performed in previous MET productions. Jeanne Averill plays Bessie Berger, the matriarch who wants the best for her kids. Robert Gibby Brand is her rather passive husband, Myron. Their children, Ralph and Hennie, are played by Sam Cordes and Natalie Liccardello. Richard Alan Nichols appears as Jacob, the grandfather.

Also in the show are Doogin Brown as the bitter war veteran Moe Axelrod, who courts Hennie; Coleman Crenshaw as Sam Feinschreiber, an immigrant seeking a home; and Alan Tilson as Schlosser the janitor.

“It’s not fair to portray Bessie in this play as a villain,” Paisley said. “She’s no more a villain than Amanda in ‘The Glass Menagerie.’ Both of these mothers want desperately for their children to succeed.”

Paisley designed the set, a massive, semi-realistic, two-story playing area that seems to take up more space than the MET’s 99-seat audience section. She gave it an intentionally unfinished look.

“It’s been an interesting piece to put in this space,” she said. “I like all the wood and the openness of it, and I like the way (actors) behave around real stuff.”

The show
“Awake and Sing!” opens tonight and runs through Dec. 5 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3614 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or go to

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send e-mail to

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