Family Told Flatly

The Rogue Theatre's production of "Awake and Sing" sadly disappoints

Well. This is awkward.

All over town theaters are opening their first plays of the new season. Productions are "curtains-up"-like weeds after the monsoon rains. Anticipation abounds, especially for those groups that we count on for their general excellence. What have they baked in the desert oven which they will now serve to us who are eager to accept the invitation to sit at their table?

In the case of the Rogue Theatre, most surprisingly, the dish is disappointment.

What happened? This is a troupe full of talent and skill and creativity abounding. But what they offer in their flat production of Clifford Odets' 1935 classic "Awake and Sing" is a listless rendering of what really is a very timely piece, aching to nudge us to see how the deflated American dream can strangle a family into pitiful dysfunction.

Sure, there is a story which gets told. It involves a Jewish family living in the Bronx in 1933, an immigrant family which, along with others, has sunk into the heartless hole of the Great Depression. Domineering wife and mother Bessie (Cynthia Meier) and ineffectual father and husband Myron (Joseph McGrath) live with their two grown children and Bessie's father, Jacob (David Greenwood.) Nobody seems very happy, except perhaps Myron, who wouldn't be if he had the sense to look around. Son Ralph (Matt Bowdren) is miserable, having to stay at home to contribute his paycheck, his mother discouraging any attempts to create a life outside the crowded apartment. And daughter Hennie (Marissa Garcia) is so sullen and shut down that she gets herself into trouble trying to find a little life or joy, or perhaps just an escape from the dreary household for an evening, and ends up marrying a Mini-Me of Myron, Sam. (Steve McKee nails it.) A boarder, Moe Axelrod (Ryan Parker Knox), who lost a leg in the war, loves to gamble and to tease Hennie in the hopes she might actually take him seriously as a suitor. Jacob is a Marxist and listens to Caruso to soothe his soul. Perhaps most promisingly, Ralph shares Jacob's beliefs, at least to a degree. "Life should not be written on dollar bills."

There is a hugely dramatic event, and here is where it becomes obvious that the Rogue's production is pretty passionless. It's obvious the playwright intends this to be an appalling thing, the apex at which things take a turn and might offer redemption or the end of the world. But it's really hard to read it in the response of the characters. It just seems to be another awful thing in an ever awful life.

While the dramatic challah should have risen in the oven, the loaf presented us looks as if someone dropped it before it reached the table.

The talented cast, for the most part, seems to take genuine stabs at their characters, but never convincingly embodies them. That Bessie is one of the choicest roles in American drama, full of rage and fear and manipulative rancor, does not read in Meier's depiction. Terry Erbe as Bessie's financially fortunate brother gets his Uncle Morty right, and we feel we know Knox's Moe. Garcia's Hennie is OK. Greenwood takes plenty of stabs at Jacob and some of them find flesh now and again. But taken together, the less than effective efforts of these fine actors really miss the mark of allowing us to witness a real family imprisoned in the painful desperation caused by the despotism of Bessie in a horrifying financial and personal hell.

I guess the finger has to be pointed in the direction of the, well, director, Bryan Rafael Falcón. Really, this is to whom the responsibility of giving a play life and purpose falls. We've seen some fine work from him before as well. Here, he has failed to identify the real heart of Odet's fine piece, and how all the characters are fed or starved by its pulsing beat.

Perhaps these fine folks will find a rhythm which delivers the story of the Bergers' with life and passion. Right now, a story is told in the simplest of terms, and that is definitely not what we expect from Rogue.

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