Lawrence Pressman, who starred as a doctor in TV’s “Doogie Howser,” has come all the way to Mt. Airy to perform in “Awake and Sing,” now at Quintessence Theatre until Feb. 17. (Photo by Linda Johnson)

by Rita Charleston

Long regarded as one of the most influential American plays of the 20th century, “Awake and Sing,” by Philadelphia playwright Clifford Odets, presented by Quintessence Theatre Group, continues through Feb. 17 at the Sedgwick Theater, 7137 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.

The play is based on the lives of the Bergers, a Jewish family living in a small apartment in the Bronx struggling to survive The Great Depression. Taking the role of Jacob, the Marxist grandfather, is stage, screen and TV star, Lawrence Pressman, who is perhaps best known for his role as Dr. Benjamin Canfield in the 1980s TV hit, “Doogie Howser, M.D.” He has also been in several movies, including both “American Pie” films.

But long before Dr. Canfield came along, Pressman, 79, was already enrolled at Northwestern University, majoring in theater and playing the role of Jacob. “I was 19 when I first took the role of Jacob in ‘Awake and Sing,’ although now, almost 60 years later, I think it fits me better,” Pressman said. “But the only real trouble I had with the role was wearing a sport coat and not knowing where to put my hands.”

Pressman lives just outside of L.A. in the same house he’s lived in for the past 45 years. One cannot help but ask why an actor who has many roles in movies and on major stages would leave the movie capital of the world to travel more than 3,000 miles at age 79 to be in a play in Mt. Airy? The answer: he’s doing this particular show because he loves it and “wanted to repeat it almost 60 years later’ and also because he is “such an art lover that being in Philly, especially to visit the Barnes,” appealed to him very much.

In explaining “Awake and Sing,” Pressman said, “Jacob is the patriarch of the family, a family that is all about dreams, although in the 1930s dreams were hard to come by or certainly hard to realize. Jacob is the chief dreamer, and because of that, his own children felt deprived of the things they felt they should have had before the Depression.”

Pressman, raised in a small town in Kentucky, never felt deprived. In fact, he considered himself very fortunate to have had two parents who were businesspeople. “Because of that, they would take us to New York twice a year, and there we would go to the theater and see all the great actors of the day. And to me, the theater was heaven, magical, absolutely wonderful. And I realized that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

And that’s exactly what he did, harkening back to his past in recreating Jacob. “Today, Jacob is based on my own grandfather, who I was very close to. He was the most important person in my life. He wasn’t a socialist, but he was able to instill in me a very wide spectrum of compassion for all people.” And then there are the accents, the rhythms of speech that Pressman remembers fondly from his youth. Pressman’s household was comprised of Jewish immigrants and first-generation Jewish Americans, many of whom still spoke Yiddish or still carried remnants of the accent, all of which play a part in this production.

Pressman, who has numerous awards to his credit, still enjoys performing, although he limits himself to doing one play a year as well as some television. “I’ve never done anything but act, although sometimes I wish I had. I love art. It’s my passion. And, at almost 80, I’m still wildly curious about the world and literature. In fact, I did ‘King Lear’ at the age of 20, and I might just like to try it again.”

But for now, Pressman is settling for a reprise of “Awake and Sing” — with one exception. “No more sport coats for me. This time I asked to wear a cardigan, just like my grandfather did. And I keep my hands in my pockets, again just like my grandfather. So that pleases me very much.”

For ticket information to “Awake and Sing,” call 215-987-4450.