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'Paradise Lost' opens at OSF

Libby Appel admits to having her doubts when she first started working on Clifford Odets' play "Paradise Lost" for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Written for the Group Theatre, the play had a disappointingly brief run on Broadway in 1935, directed by Group co-founder Harold Clurman. Critics were confused, and audiences soon stopped coming. The play has not often been revived.

"It seemed so sort of rambling," says Appel, the former OSF artistic director returning as a guest director for the second season in a row. "Now I'm so in love with it."

The drama about a family losing everything in the Great Depression will open Saturday night in the OSF's Angus Bowmer Theatre. It is the last opening of the OSF's 2009 season.

"Paradise Lost" is set in an unnamed American city nobody takes for anything but New York in the Depression. Leo and his wife, Clara, and their three adult children are comfortably upper-middle-class, with a lovely home and a successful business manufacturing ladies' handbags. But the fact that Leo is a thoughtful, well-read, ethical man who believes in the American Dream does not prevent the family from losing home, business and much more.

OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch picked the play a year-and-a-half ago, and the choice turned out to be a prescient one.

"He had no idea the economy was going where it went," Appel says. "He thought it was an unknown American classic and asked me if I'd be interested."

That was before Appel directed a hit 2008 OSF production of another American classic, Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," that was both a critical and box office success.

"It's interesting," Appel recalls thinking of Odets' play, "but I'm not sure if it works."

But once she started working with the actors — many are old OSF hands used to working together — she fell in love with it.

There are at least a couple reasons the play isn't revived more often. It has 24 characters, and not many theaters have the money or the personnel to tackle it. And in a sort of Catch-22, plays don't get revived until they have a track record, but they don't have a track record unless they get revived.

Up against that was the timeliness of a play about a family losing their home in hard times, and the fact that Odets wrote the play for members of the acting company of the Group Theatre (in which he'd been a frustrated actor), and the OSF company is a large group company with a lot of old pros. In publicity for the production, actor Michael Hume cracked that he'll be married to actor Linda Alper— again.

Hume plays Leo Gordon, and Alper plays Clara Gordon. Tony DeBruno is Leo's less-ethical partner, Sam.

"It's an extraordinary group of actors," Appel says. "This company fits the play like a glove."

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg is the scenic designer on the project. Costumes are by Anita Yavich and lights by Robert Peterson.

One of the things Appel says she was surprised by is Odets' language and how it works.

"I understood it was its own kind of dialect," she says. "Out of the '30s. But I didn't recognize just how musical it is. In its own time it was a bit like rap, idiomatic, not just the normal language, a heightened prose, like Shakespeare."

That was a startling revelation to a director whose heart has long belonged to Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov.

Over the years, some have found the play and its themes depressing, with its poverty, loss, disillusionment, crime and death. But Appel thinks at bottom it's hopeful.

"It's about loss," she says. "But it's also about the resilience and spirit deep-down inside a human being that can be called upon.

"It can be about people losing everything, but you still walk away with hope, a bit like 'The Grapes of Wrath.'

"These people care for people. They're full of love and good neighborliness. It's sweet, but it's not soppy sweet.

"Leo's speech is all about the indomitable spirit. I think people will hear it. Maybe the play's time has come."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at bvarble@mailtribune.com or 776-4478.

Michael J. Hume as Leo Gordon a man losing his business and his home during the Great Depresseion in the Oregon Shakepeare Festival's production of 'Paradise Lost.' - Photo by Jenny Graham