The situation in Clifford Odets' drama Awake and Sing! looks eerily familiar, never mind that it takes place in 1935-’36 in a cramped apartment in the Bronx. Thousands of people have lost their jobs, families are being evicted from their homes into the streets, and three and four generations are living together to share expenses. It's the middle of the Great Depression, and "Brother, can you spare a dime" is as much reality as it is a song.
"The play is particularly relevant at this time in America's history, as we all struggle to survive an unprecedented turn of financial events and face an unpredictable future," said Diana Forgione, director and founder of the Avenue Players Theatre, the troupe that is doing the play at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art auditorium Wednesday through April 19.
Indeed, Odets was considered the leading playwright in the "theater of social protest" in the 1930s, called a rabble-rouser by some, a hero of the labor movement by others.
In Awake and Sing!, Odets shows the extended Berger family struggling to make the best lives they can amid poverty, jealousy, suspicion and betrayal.
Forgione cast some of Tampa Bay's best-known and lauded actors to be in the production.
At the heart is Bessie Berger (Kimen Mitchell, Elvira in Blithe Spirit), the strong, manipulative matriarch of the house, who drops what scruples she may have as she tries to protect her family.
Bessie bosses around her ineffective husband, Myron (William Farly), discounts her resigned father, Grandpa Jacob (Ira Wolf, Truffaldino in Servant of Two Masters), and envies her rich brother Morty (Rick Kastel, Chubukov in The Bear), whose fortune may or may not have come from his garment business.
Little wonder, then, that Bessie's daughter Hennie (Melinda Greene, title role in Hedda Gabler) turns out to be a cunning, selfish slattern, attracted to an equally self-centered hustler, Moe (Doug Ronk, Matt in Anna Christie), and perfectly willing to use and abuse the good-natured Sam (Charles T. Atkinson).
A bright spot in the household is Ralph (Erik Sandberg), who works hard and has high hopes, compassion for others and genuine character.
Though the situation is daunting, the Bergers manage to grab moments of pleasure and provide snippets of lighthearted fun.
The play is part of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art's 10-year Decades Series, which examines the art and culture of each 10-year period between 1900 and 2000.
This year celebrates the time from 1930 to 1940 and started in March with an introductory lecture on that decade by Leepa-Rattner Museum director Lynn Whitelaw.
Future Decades Series programs include these:
• A talk on artistic and technical developments in film in the 1930s by St. Petersburg College instructor Sue Cornett at 7 p.m. April 30 in the museum's auditorium.
• A tour of 1930s cars at the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum escorted by Whitelaw from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 16 ($10 for nonmembers, $8 for members).
For details, tickets or reservations for all events, call (727) 712-5762.