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Awake and Stinging 

Mama shows her claws in JCC Depression drama.

Popeye the barber man: Jim Reilly (right) and - Michael Regnier.
  • Popeye the barber man: Jim Reilly (right) and Michael Regnier.
Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing is surely one of the most influential of American plays. It is the spiritual godfather to such works as Death of a Salesman and The Little Foxes, plays that chronicle the deadening effects of money-grubbing on idealism.

It is also Odets's most finished piece, an honest and heartfelt look at a Depression-era family. It follows a family divided between dreamers and pragmatists, fighting not to be consumed by the poverty that surrounds them. The dreamers are personified in an old-world grandfather, still clinging to the illusions of Marxism, and in his grandchildren, who are searching for dignity, social utopia, and romantic fulfillment. The indomitable mother and emasculated father dream of being financial sharks and thirst after bourgeois respectability. These enemies of egalitarianism are Odets's pathetic despoilers. They are not stock villains; he makes them profoundly needy and vulnerable.

The play's young innocent son, Ralph, is so moved by his grandfather's self-sacrifice (he kills himself to subsidize Ralph's future) that he begins his struggle to change the world for the better, going out to the populace to spread the play's mantra: "Life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills."

Audiences unused to such unleavened '30s intensity left the Jewish Community Center last Saturday looking as though they needed something to buck them up: a drink, a Hershey bar, or a piece of ass. They had for two explosive acts been breathing the sometimes heady, sometimes noxious fumes that occur when a high-octane playwright locks horns with a strong-minded director (Lester Thomas Shane).

Shane is a gifted theatrical auteur, but stubborn as a mule, determined to leave his messy fingerprints on someone else's masterpiece. He performs an impressionistic transfusion on a realistic play, distancing it with a Brechtian alienation and effect. He adds a character who pops up throughout the play, looking like Jack Kerouac in a black turtleneck. After all the play's characters are dead, he returns to the empty apartment to ponder his heritage. Naturally, the spectators are left wondering whether this mysterious stranger is the gas man or perhaps the nephew of Our Town's stage manager.

Shane blocks his performers with the hard-edged precision of a military strategist. He excels at wresting vivid, high-strung performances that are as flinty as Grant Wood's "American Gothic" and as brooding and neurotic as a 1939 John Garfield vehicle. Yet, he also engenders in his performers a frozen emotional toughness that chills the play's more sentimental moments.

This play makes an interesting bookend to that other '30s perennial, Kaufman and Hart's You Can't Take It With You. In that most revered of screwball comedies, we see how, under the benevolent tutelage of Grandpa Vanderhoff, the Sycamore family flourishes like contented geraniums in the sunshine of self-expression. Here, in a parallel universe, each of the Berger family is stifled by the mother, Bessie, who chokes off self-fulfillment by forcing her pregnant daughter into a loveless marriage, denying shelter to her son's girlfriend, and in a fit of pique, breaking her father's prized Caruso records. Yet this is not the work of a pessimist. Odets envisions the human race as hardy survivors, always finding precarious new ways to prevail with the playwright's pungent wordplay.

At the JCC, this oddly cold production is partially kept alive by Shane's crisp pacing and a cast that includes Jim Reilly's lovable Popeye-like grandfather, Sherri Britton's vinegary slyness as the dangerous Bessie Berger, Meredith Loux's earthy sensuality as daughter Hennie, Allan Byrne's dazed father, Brian Zoldessy's exquisite nebbishness as the cuckolded son-in-law, and Charles Kartali's riveting gangster bravado as the daughter's lover.

The sentiment that best expresses the ferocious incongruities of this dark take on the consequences of survival comes from a later Odets film classic, The Sweet Smell of Success: "You're a cookie loaded with arsenic; I'd be afraid to take a bite out of you."

Cleveland actors rarely get the recognition they deserve, but here is a case in which one of our most beloved thespians, Tedd Burr, has been superbly immortalized in Letters to Uranus, a movie we are sure will become a cult classic. Local director Lenny Pinna has taken a video camera to capture a tempestuous afternoon of reminiscences with Burr. In orange caftan and Buster Brown pageboy, waxing nostalgic on theater gods of yore, touching on a murdered boyfriend and a fascinating wartime correspondence between his teenaged self and famous New York author Henry Bellamann (King's Row), Burr begins as a charming Miss Marple and ends in exquisite confession worthy of Blanche Dubois.

Pinna, who is looking for funds to transfer his remarkable video to film stock in time for the Cleveland International Film Festival, has created a work of compassion and insight that goes beyond the realm of talking-heads documentary into the sphere of Tennessee Williams Passion Play.

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