The daughter and the iron-fisted matriarch: Hennie (Natalie Arneson) and Bessie (Luisa Amaral-Smith).
The daughter and the iron-fisted matriarch: Hennie (Natalie Arneson) and Bessie (Luisa Amaral-Smith).

Great Depression

Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! is more relevant than ever in Main Street Theater's emotionally charged performance — and it was first produced in 1935, during the Great Depression. The famous play attacks everything from petty bourgeois desire to heartless capitalists ready to crush the little guy for a buck.

But this tale isn't all political ranting, especially from Main Street's actors, who inhabit Odets's characters with a largesse of soul that makes even the toughest and meanest of the bunch painfully human. Under the quiet and powerful direction of Cheryl L. Kaplan, the squabbling of the Jewish family at the center of Odets's story becomes practically Shakespearean in its reach.

Crowded into a Bronx apartment, the Bergers are trying to make ends meet. They all chip in their tiny salaries from their crappy jobs, which means that neither of the grown kids has a chance of getting out, unless they marry someone with a decent job. All there is to talk about is how miserable they all are, which they do with great animation over dinner, as the Caruso records of Grandpa Jacob (Steve Garfinkel) spin endlessly in his room.


Awake and Sing!

Main Street Theater, 2540Times Blvd., 713-524-6706.

Through June 7. $10 to $36.

At the epicenter of all this kvetching is Bessie Berger (Luisa Amaral-Smith), the iron-fisted matriarch who can fix almost anyone's troubles, even if that means crushing a few hearts in the process. She dictates all the major decisions in her house. When her son Ralph (Charles Swan) falls in love with an orphan girl — meaning, a girl without any financial prospects — she bellows an absolute no. When the girl phones, Bessie sneers that her son is out. When he wants the girl to come live in the apartment for a while, Bessie says she would not save the poor wretch from drowning — that's how much she despises her. Ferocious in its delivery, this is the sort of motherly love that keeps therapists in business.

And to her daughter Hennie (Natalie Arneson), Bessie's ministrations are even harsher. When the pretty girl ends up "in trouble," Bessie picks out a husband for Hennie, swindling the poor oaf into a marriage. In later scenes, we watch Sam (Josh Morrison) dutifully raising another man's infant, even as Hennie barks at him that she can't bear his touch.

This is a tragedy of small increments. Every day, another lick of cruelty punches these characters down. Bessie berates her kind Marxist father Jacob, who speaks up for the little guy, even as she dotes on successful capitalist Uncle Morty (Jack Young), who would cheat a working man for a few extra dollars. The disappointed woman also saves some blows for her dreamer of a husband Myron (George Brock). After all, she did go to work while he went to law school for two years. That he never finished is one of the family's biggest unspoken heartaches.

The only one able to fight back is Moe Axelrod (Jamie Geiger), a gambler and a conman who rents a room from the Bergers and is in love with the beautiful Hennie. As a WWI veteran who lost a leg in the service of his country, Moe understands the foolishness of big ideas. He's a cynic who sees war as a game and money as something to be won and lost.

This cast provides a potent night of theater. Amaral-Smith has the difficult job of living inside Bessie's hard heart, and the actor rises to the occasion, making this mother so real, we feel sympathy for her despite her bad behavior. Her tiny, clenched-up body seems as though it might explode with all her unmet desires and lost opportunities. Young's Uncle Morty drips with oily contempt for the working man. His smile is easy, even though he'd steal the hair off your head if he could. Brock is heartbreaking as Myron, the "funny" (as in strange) guy who is always dreaming and never doing. Garfinkel's Jacob is also sad as the father who's so horribly disrespected by the children he's raised. Morrison is obligingly doltish as the immigrant Sam (Odets's lousy take on immigrants is something for another discussion). Swan's young Ralph boils with longing and passion. Geiger's Moe rages and sneers over the tenderness he hides. And Arneson's tough-talking Hennie manages to be both hateful and seductive.

Throw in Trey Otis's smart set (the odd space on Times Boulevard never looked so good), and you've got a show that ­really shouldn't be missed, especially these days. Odets's story won't make you feel better about the economy, but it will remind you that all things will pass.


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