A classic’s transcendence: Actor Lawrence Pressman talks relevance of Quintessence’s ‘Awake and Sing!’

Philadelphia playwright Clifford Odets premiered his magnum opus, Awake and Sing!, in 1935. But as the Quintessence Theater Group takes the play to the stage at the Sedgwick Theater, it seems as though it could have been penned today.A predecessor…

Philadelphia playwright Clifford Odets premiered his magnum opus, Awake and Sing!, in 1935. But as the Quintessence Theater Group takes the play to the stage at the Sedgwick Theater, it seems as though it could have been penned today.

A predecessor to Eugene O’Neil and precursor to Tennessee Williams, Odete centers Awake and Sing! on the Bergers, a Jewish family during the Great Depression. Three generations crammed in a small Bronx apartment, the family is divided into realists and idealists as they each try to survive and strive for their own pursuit of happiness.

Lawrence Pressman plays Jacob, the Marxist grandfather constantly at odds with his daughter, the pragmatic matriarch, Bessie. Making his Quintessence debut, Pressman is an actor with over 150 television and movie credits and best known for his part as Dr. Benjamin Canfield in the 1980s TV drama, Doogie Howser, M.D.

But the prolific onscreen actor has alway shared a longtime love for the stage, including on Broadway in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and Man in the Glass Booth, both directed by Harold Pinter. He was also accepted into the first repertory theater at Lincoln Center, headed by artistic directors Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead.

Awake and Sing! is about a group of people living together in very close quarters,” said Pressman, who currently resides in California. “With all of what is going on in the world around them, they’re still falling in love, marrying the wrong guy, being cruel to each other and loving each other, and all of it in the context of the Great Depression.”

This is not the first time Pressman has played the part of Jacob. However, it is his first time playing it at the appropriate age of 79. He originally undertook the role as a 19-year-old college student at Northwestern.

Pressman noted that the play, while credited as one of the greats of the 20th century, has been underperformed.

“It wasn’t done for a long time, because people thought well that’s just the Depression,” said Pressman. “‘Well, we are out of that. We live a good life now.’”

But it is through the struggles and strides of the Berger family that one can find the  striking similarities to today’s climate. Mirroring the 1930s, there is a worldwide spike in anti-Semitism, a plummeting stock market of Great Depression proportions and a humanitarian crises at the southern border with immigration.

“We are back in the 30s in many ways,” said Lawrence Pressman, playing the grandfather role of Jacob. “And it’s incomprehensible to me that we still have the race problems that we have got and the anti-Semitism that we got. That always goes hand in hand.”

As a Jewish man, Pressman realized society’s regression after the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh that claimed 11 lives back in October.

“‘Do you realize we, as American Jewish children of immigrant parents, we have known the longest period of peace any Jew that anyone has ever known in the history of the world?,”’ Pressman said, recalling contemporaries. “‘And it ended in Pittsburgh a few months ago.’”

Reprising the role of Jacob that he played 50 years ago, Pressman contemplated not only on the current threads of Awake and Sing!, but also reflected on the “personal” connections to his own past.

Pressman’s maternal grandmother worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, leaving before the fire that took 146 lives. Pulling money with her husband and other family members, they road south and settled in the small town of Cynthiana, Kentucky, which would be home for Pressman’s mother and himself.

“If I look at it now, it was kind of a wonderful spectrum of Judaism in how Jewish life extended as far as Cynthiana, Kentucky,” said Pressman.   

Growing up in the sparsely Jewish town, Pressman’s household was comprised of Jewish immigrants and first generation Americans, many of whom spoke Yiddish or still carried remnants of the accent — a language that plays an integral role in Awake and Sing!

Pressman’s father had a very different immigrant story. Also a Russian Jew, his mother died during Czarist regime and he fled the Cossack army at the age of 12. Traveling alone with a note that contained his American uncle’s information, an Italian woman on the boat fed and cared for Pressman’s father until they docked in Philadelphia harbor.

“I think that America always has stood for ultimately generosity of spirit,” said Pressman. And I think Awake and Sing! is about a certain kind of generosity under very difficult conditions.”

Pressman’s father would later fight in World War I, which would gain him full citizenship.

The two words I remember my dad saying over and over and over again are American and freedom,” Pressman relayed. “‘You’re an American’ and ‘you got to believe in freedom if you’re an American.’”

Those two words play on loop in Pressman’s head each time he rereads Awake and Sing!. It was a time where many Jews wanted to forget the tragic lives they left behind, assume new identities as American and attain the American Dream via economic liberation.

Pressman quotes the play, where Jacob says that his grandson Ralph “dreams of night of fortunes.” Foreshadowing a Death of a Salesman type ending — but before Death of a Salesman was written — money becomes a central motif to start again.  For Pressman, freedom in its purest idea is one of the play’s central messages. It is a concept that echoes his family’s narrative and it is a privilege that many take for granted today.

“The synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh should be a warning, not just to Jewish people, but to all of us that freedom is not a gift that can simply be accepted and exploited, explained Pressman. “Freedom is a gift that needs to me constantly renewed. It’s like a flower that has to be watered. We’re learning that again, it’s fragile.”

Awake and Sing! | Jan. 23-Feb. 17. $15-$35. Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. quintessencetheatre.org/awake-and-sing/

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