Paradise Lost: The curtain starts at full rise. We have a kitchen table on our right and a one-storey stack of industrial lumber on the left. Behind this minimal staging towers an IMAX-sized backdrop. Scenes from The Man From Snowy River (starring Kirk Douglas) flash across it, interspersed with commercials from 1982: join the Army and get money for college; finish this recital and we’ll go to McDonald’s, Kimberly; look for the union label. The cast filters onto the stage, watching the screen – dwarfed by it, all human semblance destroyed until they’re silhouettes on fire – until credits roll, lights up and the play starts. The space – that is to say, the Gordon household – is far more vast than we at first realize: a pile of props in the corner are a shed out back; the back stage door leads to the back porch. We quickly grow accustomed to how big the space is. When the space shrinks for the second act, replacing the towering lumber with a couch and refrigerator, and again for the third, only then do we miss what we never knew we had.
Clifford Odets wrote Paradise Lost in 1935. It debuted at the Group Theater (which Odets helped Lee Strasberg found), with names like Stella Adler, Elia Kazan and Sanford Meisner in the major roles. It tells the story of three years in the Gordon family over the course of three acts. Middle class Leo and Clara Gordon keep a full house: their three children, pianist Pearl, narcoleptic Jules and Olympian Ben; their friend, Gus Michaels, whose wild daughter Libby is engaged to Ben; and the ranting Mr. Pike, who’s always keeping the furnace in repair. In the first and most spacious act, Leo and his friends acknowledge the terrible state of the American economy but have no real notion of what to do about it. By the second act, the looming specter of bankruptcy has begun to stalk the Gordon family, leading all of them to desperate measures. The third act leads the Gordons right to the brink of despair, testing if they can remain decent while assaulted with Kafkaesque indignity.
Odets wore his socialist politics on his sleeve; the American Repertory Theater’s production, while hardly Marxist, doesn’t pull many punches. Early in the first act, the Gordons and the radical Mr. Pike laugh a bustling block captain off stage who urges them to vote Democrat; he becomes a recurring villain. A.R.T. makes use of the cavernous space in several unique ways. Some, like projecting scenes onto the massive screen while they occur on stage, are ingenious. Others, like giving cast members a hand held mic for certain lines, don’t illuminate anything (the lines they mic aren’t any more crucial than the others). But the play doesn’t hinge on subtlety, and neither does the production. Leo’s business partner, Ben’s childhood pal Kewpie and the runner for the Democratic machine may contribute to the family’s ruination, but only the latecomer Mr. May gets projected on the screen in monstrous photonegative. And, thanks to clever staging, the second act death of a family member hits us with the impact of a fifty-foot drop.
Odets had an inspiring optimism in the human spirit. As a socialist, he felt that getting the class structure out of the way had the chance to free humans from the rat race and unite the world. Despite having lost everything – even the right to stay evicted from his own home – Leo Gordon ends Paradise Lost shouting with optimism. Of course, that optimism echoes to us from over seven decades in the past. The Depression that Odets and the country suffered through came and went. The Great War he railed against was supplanted by an even bigger, Greater War. And the Soviet Union that he idolized collapsed under its own weight, replaced by a kleptocracy that would make the thuggish Kewpie look civilized.
It takes a smart pace, a bold cast and a certain suspension of disbelief to carry Odets’ optimism through the Brechtian suffering that Paradise Lost inflicts on the Gordon family. A.R.T’s production manages about two out of three. The stylistic flourishes – the mic, the screen, the bare stage – work about as often as they flop. Some of the cast attack their lines with verve and sharp pacing; a few let the dialogue fall slack. But director Daniel Fish avoids the pitfall awaiting any modern production of Paradise Lost, especially one staged in Cambridge MA, by pointing to any major party as the savior. Watch Clara Gordon stalking through the remains of her evicted home in blue jeans and a KERRY / EDWARDS T-shirt, screaming, “Why did we wait so long?” and you’ll know this staging sides with the radicals.