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Awake and Sing! 

When: Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. and Tuesdays, 7 p.m. Continues through Sept. 21 2009
Price: $15-$55

Bessie Berger is the combustible element at the center of Clifford Odets' 1935 drama Awake and Sing!,about a smart, vicious matriarch who tries to withstand a hardscrabble existence by manipulating her children. Played by stage and screen star Ellen Ratner in AuroraTheatre Company's new production, Bessie is the type of Depression-era Jewish mother who keeps everyone -- including her layabout husband -- under an iron boot heel. She arranges marriages, subverts any relationship that doesn't seem economically or socially prudent, lies with a straight face, keeps the apartment spic-and-span (but ravages it in moments of rage), cross-examines her kids at the dinner table, and insults  people with a vengeance (e.g., "He's got more brains in his finger than you've got in I don't know where"). Ratner is dazzling in this play, as are Rod Gnapp (the snappy, quasi-sleazy boarder who winds up seducing her daughter), Charles Dean (the Bergers' self-made, rich uncle), and Ray Reinardt (the Marxist grandfather who becomes a de facto moral compass). Fantastically rich dialogue and a multilayered storyline make this play timeless, even if it's frozen in time. Yet this particular version succeeds largely on Joy Carlin's stage direction, and Nina Ball's period-appropriate sets. Through September 27 at Berkeley's AuroraTheatre (2081 Addison St.). $17-$45.

— Rachel Swan


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