July 20, 2015

The tension around Bessie Berger’s dining room table is so close to the boiling point, you can practically see the steam rising. Her son, Ralph, is venting about wasting his life as a stock clerk. His combative sister, Hennie, is mocking their placid dad. So Bessie, a steamroller of a woman and a lifelong enforcer of her own will, does what she needs to do to shut them up. She feigns weakness from emotional upset. “In a minute I’ll get up from the table,” she says. “I can’t take a bite in my mouth no more.” What Bessie does not yet understand, in the opening scene of Clifford Odets’s Depression-era drama “Awake and Sing!” — handsomely mounted by the National Asian American Theater Company, at the Public Theater — is just how eager her two 20-something children are for a jailbreak from their stifled existence. She’s raised them to be smarter, fiercer and less obedient than she thinks. Directed by Stephen Brown-Fried, this is largely the same production that the company staged in 2013 at Walkerspace. Mia Katigbak, who played Bessie then, too, won an Obie Award for her performance, in which you will recognize every mother who has sacrificed for her family, believes she is doing her best for it and is nonetheless perpetrating some seriously toxic acts.