Sunday, August 23, 2009

Paradise Lost

Clifford Odets, commonly thought of as the American Chekhov, wrote Paradise Lost in 1935, and it was first produced by the Group Theatre in New York City later that year. Odets transformed the tumultuous economic upheaval of the Great Depression into a story of a family coping with the loss of dreams and of their familiar way of life in the face of a harsher reality. With so many jobs being lost today, the story could not be more timely.

The production in the Angus Bowmer Theatre directed by Libby Appel reflected the ensemble-focused traditions of the Group Theatre: No star-stolen moments, but a solid unit of a Jewish family, the Gordons, and their world with the characters that inhabit it. Despite great talent and promise, the adult children are unable to find work, and the parents have mortgaged the family home in order to keep the handbag business that stands between them and poverty. The wife, Clara, wonderfully played by Linda Alper, is trying to forestall the imminent ruin of her family, constantly attempting to ease their concerns with offers of fruit. The husband Leo is sure that despite the hard times, they will succeed by doing the right thing: When he learns from the labor union the condition in which his employees toil, he wants to help them. When a stranger offers to burn down the handbag factory to receive the insurance money, Leo throws him out of his house.

But the attempts to do right are not met with reward. Their oldest son is killed by police fire in a botched job attempt for a mobster friend. The daughter, although a talented pianist, cannot find employment and since her fiance cannot either, he leaves town, leaving her behind to grieve. The youngest son is dying from a long, drawn-out disease. Eventually, they lose the house.

And here's the kicker: This is a play of hope. The characters may be ultimately unsuccessful in their endeavors, but their lives hold significance. Their piece of the American Dream has been utterly destroyed by the Great Depression and yet they still strive to do right and they never, ever give up hope in the future. Odets' words are incredibly reassuring in our own financial and political climate, when, tragically, bad things happen to good people every day. And yet, like the Gordon family, when bad things happen, we still must cling to hope.

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