'Awake and Sing': How the 1935 play translates to audiences today

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L.A. Theatre Works presents Clifford Odets’ 1935 masterpiece, 'Awake and Sing!', which brings to urgent life the struggles of a working-class family aspiring to the promise of the American Dream. At the Skirlball January 13-17.

Left-leaning playwright Clifford Odets’ star rose in the 1930s and ‘40s, before the House Un-American Activities Committee called him to testify in 1952. He disavowed any affiliation with the Communist Party and “named names” of people with party ties - an act he later claimed to regret. After he appeared before Congress, Odets’ work fell out of favor. He died in 1963.

Many theater people consider his 1935 play “Awake and Sing” Odets’ best.

This evening is the first of five performances recorded for radio through L.A. Theatre Works at the Skirball Cultural Center.

Its cast includes Ben Gazzarra, Mark Ruffalo, and Jane Kaczmarek. Tony Award-winning Director Bartlett Sher told KPCC’s Steve Julian the how the language Clifford Odets used translates to audiences today.

Bart Sher: He was a Jew who grew up in the Bronx. So he mixes the very, very strong dialect and accent of the Bronx with a really, really vivid visual, poetic nature. So you get all these really incredible lines, particularly from Moe Axelrod, the character Mark Ruffalo plays, which are extremely pictorial, filled with local references and a fantastic sense of rhythm. So it really is a rat-a-tat flavor and pungentness that you would get in ‘30s movies times 5.

Steve Julian: What is at the core of "Awake and Sing"?

Sher: Life is not printed on dollar bills. That’s the main line, the most important line. The idea that, somehow, no matter much we struggle or how much we work at in our lives, this idea that success is the most important thing is definitely challenged by Awake and Sing. It’s not the most important. It’s not the only thing that makes a difference in our lives. To be human, the activities, our struggles, it’s not all about making money and it’s not all about being a success.

Julian: This was written decades ago. Is it still fresh today?

Sher: We always go back to these old stories as a kind of spiritual, emotional, collective experience to kind of make sense of where we are now. So there’s no way that it’s directly a reference to now, but everything about it, that it’s during a period when they were struggling economically, the fact that the family is struggling under very difficult means to hold their lives together – there are a lot of resonances on the surface that absolutely make sense now. And then there are the basic human struggles, which great writers and great artists capture in the core of their work, and we release freshly when we do them again.

Julian: Why did this revival win the 2006 Tony?

Sher: I think that there had come to be a lot of assumptions about the greatest American plays, and which had come to decide that many of Miller’s, Williams’, and in some ways Wilder’s had sort of cornered the market on the greatest American plays. And I think people felt that there had been enough distance that coming back to a play of Odets’ Awake and Sing, we were discovering there was a lot of underestimation of Odets. ...it seemed it was the right time to return to Odets and revive the idea that his writing was more important than we knew, more applicable to our lives than we knew, and put more information in our American consciousness than we knew.

Julian: How does this compare to other staged readings you've done?

Sher: The wonderful thing about doing these particular pieces is the weird interaction between sound and experience. Laughs. Does that make sense? Because I’m very rhythmic, and I find language to be a rhythmic thing, a musical thing, and so, one of great things about doing this particular series is the hearing of it – you’re focused on the actual hearing of it – and the language as a musical instrument its own, that’s what’s beautiful about this particular experience as a staged reading, that you get to hear these as quote “radio plays” but only through the medium of your ear. And that experience hits maybe a different part of the cerebral cortex and releases a kind of spirit and imagination and, sometimes, sorrow that’s in these plays that you might not always access if you’re being completely guided by the visual.

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