Skip navigation

by Robert Trussell for the KC Star

Revisiting a well-made play from a distant era is often an eye-opening experience, and so it is with the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s well-acted production of “Awake and Sing!”

Staged on Broadway at the height of the Great Depression, this three-act family drama by Clifford Odets was viewed as a contemporary piece by 1935 audiences. It reverberated with the harsh realities of a bleak economy and it foreshadowed the coming war.

Set entirely in a Bronx apartment occupied by three generations of the Berger family, the narrative reflects the Jewish immigrant experience and generational conflicts wrapped around an affecting love story. Odets was, of course, a committed lefty, and the play flirts with agitprop in its unambiguous condemnation of raw capitalism and Americans’ obsession with money.

Director Karen Paisley has gathered together a prodigiously talented group of actors that seems well suited to Odets’ ensemble piece. But the cast was never fully in sync on opening night and struggled to find a consistent rhythm. A couple of blown sound cues didn’t help. Nonetheless, many of those on stage registered impressive work individually and at times electrifying exchanges lit up the house.

Jeanne Averill is a powerhouse as Bessie Berger, the ultimate dominating mother who wants what’s best for her kids even if it kills them. But Odets’ portrait is fundamentally sympathetic even when Bessie is at her most maddening. Averill gives us a memorable, multi-level performance.

Her passive husband, Myron, is nicely drawn by Robert Gibby Brand in an unobtrusive turn. Their son Ralph, played explosively by Sam Cordes, is frustrated by the lack of opportunity, not to mention the lack of money, he has endured his entire life.

Their daughter Hennie (the earthy/elegant Natalie Licardello) has her own frustrations which are exacerbated when she reveals that she’s expecting a child. She won’t identify the father and Bessie forces her into a loveless marriage with Sam (Coleman Crenshaw), an immigrant who hears what he wants to hear, even when Hennie is brutally honest.

The family elder, Jacob, muses philosophically, preaches Marxism, listens to Caruso and pins all of his hopes for the future on young Ralph. Richard Alan Nichols’ performance is textured and powerful.

As the cynical boarder, Moe Axelrod, Doogin Brown is really too young to play the embittered World War I veteran who lost a leg the day before the armistice. But his reading of Moe, who loves Hennie from a close distance, is so affecting that his age becomes a minor issue. Brown’s a charismatic actor who draws our attention even in those moments where he appears to do nothing.

The play reflects to some degree Odets’ own experience as the son of Jewish immigrants, but in 2010 his script inevitably echoes Jewish stereotypes we’ve seen in 75 years of dramas, musicals and comedies. Most of the actors clear that hurdle, but Greg Butell’s performance as Uncle Morty, a dress manufacturer, is more attitude than character.

Paisley’s use of dramatic string music, unidentified in the program, in certain scenes is unnecessary, if not distracting. Her actors and the script are more than adequate to the task of communicating the story’s tragic elements.

But what’s remarkable about this show are the clear parallels between the Great Depression and our recession, which the experts have declared to be over. The desperate desire for financial security is universal, no matter what the politicians say. When people are confronted by inequality on a daily basis, they tend to get angry — then and now.

Odets ends his drama on a note of youthful optimism, but it rings false. What you remember is the righteous anger. That’s what fuels this play.

“Awake and Sing!” runs through Dec. 5 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Call 816-569-3226 or go to

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send email to

Read more:

%d bloggers like this: