By Lisa DiCarluci
It was surprising, to say the least, when I walked into the Black Box Theater last Friday night, faced a dark wall and was asked to pick a side. When I chose to go right, I found that the set was right in the middle of the room and the people who had chosen to go left were staring right back at me. I looked in on a small, old apartment, called a railroad flat, where a little show called "Awake and Sing" would spend the next three hours providing an intimate glimpse of the life of one small family, in one small home.
The show opens with the Berger family, Bessie the mother, Myron the father, Hennie the daughter, Ralph the son and Jacob the grandfather eating dinner. It's not long before personalities begin to show in this Jewish family from the Bronx in 1934. Bessie, played by Alex Rose, is the domineering matriarch of the family, leaving anyone with a differing opinion in the shadows. Though Bessie is a person whom I detested for the entirety of the show, Rose does an excellent job of portraying this stone cold woman who only ever truly shows affection to her brother, Morty.
Deepest in Bessie's shadow is her husband Myron, played meekly by Max Lehman. Though at first it seemed like Lehman was nervous, it became apparent as the show moved forward that he was carefully constructing a character that is both subservient and passive to his wife's oppressive personality. The audience ultimately finds incredible sympathy for Myron as well as for the other members of this family who are consistently shushed throughout the show.
Most resentful of this oppression are Bessie's children. Lauryn Hamel plays the daughter, Hennie, with loads of sass and a great Bronx accent, which some of the other characters stumble over. She carefully walks the line between following her own heart and doing what her mother believes to be right, reflecting a struggle of many women at this time. Consistently tempting her towards the way of passion is family friend Moe Axelrod, played by Christian Titus, who bridges the gap. He uses his outspoken nature and slyness to become the underlying conscience of the show, though at times he seems a little sleazy.
But while Hennie acts out, her brother Ralph, played by Max Baudisch, mostly just complains. And though his points are valid and worthy of sympathy (he sleeps on a daybed in the living room), Baudisch sounds more like he is whining than arguing for his rights, constantly bringing up the same point about wanting new shirts while his sister struggles with major life choices, which ultimately makes him annoying.
The character whom is closest with Ralph, his grandfather Jacob, played by Paul Tiesler, absolutely steals your heart and breaks it at the same time. He constantly hints at lofty ideas beyond the small mind of his daughter who opresses him and treats him as just another child, but while Bessie claims to be looking out for her children's best interest, her father seems to be left in the dust. She completely disrespects his most prized possessions and his precious world views. Tiesler effortlessly portrays a man who is horribly frustrated with, yet completely tender towards his family.
Though act one was a little difficult to sit through, by the end of the show I felt deeply attached to this family and was touched by each of their stories.