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Monthly Archives: November 2010

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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A Note from the Dramaturg

“Black Monday: Stocks Sink As Gloom Seizes Wall Street. Prolonged Economic Turmoil”

AP Headline (2008)

“Be prepared for the worst… repeating the Great Depression”

– Forbes (2009)

The next financial crisis is coming; we made it worse

– New Republic (2009)

The economy is still at the brink

– Wall Street Journal (2010)

We have, of late, been saturated by messages of economic doom and tales of families ruined.  The pervasive story of the last few years is that of the middle class family evicted from their home, left jobless and hopeless.  The most frightening reporting compares the current economic situation with the Great Depression: a time when dire economic conditions across the globe forced families out of a life of optimism to face a future dominated by financial destitution.  The Roaring Twenties saw the end of the War to End All Wars, exciting innovations in technology and entertainment, financial booms, and expanded rights and roles for women.  But in 1928, everything changed.  Boundless opportunity was replaced by feelings of helplessness and grim predestination.  A world characterized by freedom felt suddenly choiceless.  It is not a surprise that all of this sounds uncomfortably familiar.

Clifford Odets wrote his eulogy to the American Dream in the winter of 1932-33.  Set in 1933, Awake and Sing! was originally titled I Got the Blues. The entire world shared this dark sentiment; the stock market had crashed just four years earlier.  President Hoover had initiated relief efforts with the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which FDR would extend and expand into the more famous WPA in 1935.  The Berger family, Clifford Odets, and people across the globe were shocked to wake up one morning and realize that capitalism, industry, and the pursuit of profit would not guarantee a better world.  The internationally dominant, all-powerful, capitalistic system was suddenly in ruin.  Perhaps four years ago an explanation of this bleak economic climate would have been needed, a historical overview of middle class struggle necessary, but the hopelessness of the Great Depression is all too familiar in 2010.

Like many of us, Clifford Odets was faced with a world that seemed suddenly false.  Work hard, save your money, make good investments, and your returns will be lucrative, your retirement comfortable, and your future golden.  Faced with the collapse of the economy, Odets asked the all-too-familiar questions: “Now what?  How do I make a life out of these ruins?  Where’s the future?  What’s life for?”  On the cusp of these answers, we find Awake and Sing!

But this play is not simply about the economy.  It isn’t about capitalism or communism or socialism.  It isn’t about politics.  It is about family.  The Bergers’ world is so restricted by Read More »