Odets’ 1935 play tells the story of the Bergers, a lower middle-class, three-generation Jewish family living in a Bronx apartment during the Great Depression. The family, ruled over by strong-willed matriarch Bessie (Channing), long for a better world for themselves. True to life in his depiction of the extreme economic hardships confronted by working-class immigrant families of the time, Odets documents their travails and their hopes, capturing the frenetic, pressured existence in this crowded home.
Channing is best known internationally for her screen work including, early in her career, playing Rizzo in the film of Grease and, more recently, first lady to Martin Sheen’s US president in American TV series The West Wing. However, she started her career in the theatre and has continued to appear regularly on stage with Broadway credits including Little Foxes, They’re Playing Our Song, Love Letters, The Lion in Winter, The House of Blue Leaves and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, for which she won a Best Actress Tony Award.
The actress has previously appeared on the London stage in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (transferred from the Royal Court to the West End’s Comedy Theatre), which she also performed on Broadway and on screen (for which she was Oscar nominated), and, for a handful of performances last year, in death row documentary drama The Exonerated at Riverside Studios (See News, 3 Feb 2006). Channing’s other screen credits include Up Close and Personal, Moll Flanders, Bright Young Things and The Business of Strangers.
Clifford Odets (1906-1963) was born in Philadelphia of Jewish immigrant parents and was raised in the Bronx, New York. He began his career as an actor in 1931 but shortly turned to writing. His first play Waiting for Lefty immediately launched him as one of America’s leading playwrights of the 1930s; Paradise Lost, Golden Boy, Rocket Man to the Moon, Clash by Night and The Big Knife followed.
Awake and Sing! was first staged by the Group Theatre, originally opening in 1935 at the Belasco Theatre in New York and has since been revived four times on Broadway. The most recent Lincoln Centre production, which opened at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre last March, won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and received five further nominations, including performance nods for its stars Mark Ruffalo and Briton Zoe Wanamaker (now at the National in The Rose Tattoo).
Michael Attenborough’s current UK premiere production of Theodore Ward’s ‘lost’ 1937 play Big White Fog, which revolves around an African-American family in Depression-era Chicago, opened last week at the Almeida (See Review Round-up, 21 May 2007). It stars Danny Sapani and Jenny Jules and continues 30 June. Over the summer, the Almeida will also host its 16th annual Almeida Opera season from 5 to 22 July 2007. Further casting and creative details for Awake and Sing will be announced shortly.
- by Terri Paddock