"Comes the Revolution!"
That old 1930s leftist rallying cry (usually said with a heavy Yiddish accent) seems to infuse Clifford Odets' "Paradise Lost," although it never actually appears in the play.
Odets is known for his left-leaning criticism of the American economic system and his gritty portraits of the working class. "Paradise Lost" is scathingly critical, to be sure, but this Odets work is an examination of the disintegration of a solid middle class family during the Great Depression. It is a portrait of bewilderment, anxiety and impotence at the loss of a way of life.
"Paradise Lost," in the Bowmer Theatre, is the last production to open in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2009 season. Former OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel has taken a cast of OSF stalwarts and fashioned a hard-hitting, fast-moving production that leaves the audience breathless at the end of each of the three acts.
OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch selected "Paradise Lost" for the 2009 season in the early spring of 2008, long before the American economy abruptly tanked. Appel says Rauch came to her to direct because the play was an unknown American classic. Neither of them knew how prescient the play would become.
The American Dream — that hard work will be rewarded, that one's children will inherit a better world — was possible for the immigrants that flocked to the United States at the turn of the century. Jews, Irish, Italians all faced barriers, were in many ways excluded from the mainstream, but that dream, that goal was there, was always possible.
"Paradise Lost" is about the Gordons, one step away from the immigrant experience. When the play opens, in 1932, Leo Gordon (Michael J. Hume) is the co-owner of a successful handbag factory. He owns a comfortable, large home. The edges of Leo's world are crumbling but the Depression hasn't really touched him or his family yet. He is an educated man, kind, loving and idealistic.
Leo and his outspoken, practical wife, Clara (Linda Alper) have created an insular life for themselves. Their oldest son, Ben (David DeSantos), is an Olympic medallist, a runner, and trained for nothing beyond that.Ben is used to acclaim, to deference and sees his future mapped out only for continuing glory. Their daughter, Pearl (Ella Bocanegra), is a gifted pianist who assumes she will be able to live by and for her music. Their younger son, Julie (Daniel Marmion) is a financial prodigy but has been sidelined by a debilitating illness. Leo and his wife have hopes that their children will succeed in the larger world but there is no pressure on them.
Leo Gordon is an optimist who is willfully blind to the reality around him. In 1932, many banks had failed, unemployment was approaching 25 percent, homeless people were starving to death on the streets. Leo's savings have been wiped out. He has allowed his brash, bullying business partner, Sam Katz (Tony DeBruno) to run the factory — paying his workers substandard wages to labor in filthy degrading conditions. Leo is shocked to learn of this — but where has he been for the last 20 years?
As Clara says, first lovingly, then bitterly, then angrily — "I married a fool."
In these hard times, Leo allows his furnace repairman, Pike (Mark Murphey) to live for free in the basement. Leo's friend Gus Michaels (Richard Elmore) hangs around because he has no work and nothing but nostalgic memories to sustain him. The family reluctantly welcomes Ben's marriage to Gus' spoiled daughter Libby (Sarah Rutan). They nurture Pearl when her fiancé dumps her because he cannot find work as a violinist, just as they nurture Julie when it becomes apparent that he will never recover his health
By 1934, things have gotten a lot worse. Ben is selling toys on street corners and reluctantly accepts a job from his childhood friend Kewpie (Mark Bedard), a two-bit crook who is sleeping with Ben's wife. Katz has embezzled the operating funds from the business. Pearl and Julie virtually never leave the house. By, 1935, everything is lost: the business is bankrupt, the house is foreclosed and the family's possessions are out on the street.
It's is both Leo's strength and his greatest weakness that he never loses his decency, his hope, his faith in his fellow man. Appel and Hume revel in this and do their best to make Leo Gordon a heroic figure. Leo Gordon vows to fight on, to build a new, loving, just society.
The problem, however, is that Odets' Leo simply hasn't a clue. He has done nothing to, as they say, mitigate his damages. He isn't an unprincipled survivor like Kewpie or Katz. But he is no political activist either. Appel and her cast have presented a moving tale but, that stirring final speech notwithstanding, there is no real ending to this play.
(And, when Leo proclaims: "No fruit tree wears a lock and key," I wanted to point out to him that most fruit trees are on private property.)
OSF has delivered richly textured production values. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's two-level set depicts the Gordon's spacious and welcoming home. Costume designer Anita Yavich accurately delivers the style and idiosyncrasies of the '30s. Robert Peterson did the lighting design. Todd Barton provided the sound design. Pearl's piano performances are recorded and performed by Alexander Tutunov. Judith Rosen was the dramaturg, filling the play with period detail.
America in 2009 is not yet at the levels reached by the Great Depression. We are all hopeful that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, that the upturn has already begun. We would like to believe that with a few tweaks to the system, the American Dream can still exist.
As Clara Gordon would have said, "From your mouth to God's ear."
OSF's 'Paradise Lost'
"Comes the Revolution!"