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'Paradise' 2009: Missing and presumed lost

When Harold Clurman came to direct "Paradise Lost" in 1935 he thought the characters "mad." They still are.

In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new production of Clifford Odets' drama about the decline of a middle-class family in the Great Depression, the dithering of Leo Gordon (Michael J. Hume), the idealistic businessman whose handbag factory is failing, cannot help but remind us of the maddening Madame Ranevskaya in "The Cherry Orchard."

Leo is a kind man who reads Emerson and means well, but he is clueless. Neither Gus (Richard Elmore), the Gordons' family friend, nor any of the family's three adult children has more than the flimsiest grasp on reality. Leo's partner, Sam Katz (Tony DeBruno), is a tragic figure making relentlessly bad decisions and spreading unhappiness.

Not only are the characters a bit mad, the world they inhabit is charged, off-kilter, slightly unreal. Characters keep startling us with their passions. Kewpie (Mark Bedard), a childhood pal of Ben Gordon (David DeSantos), enters and promptly hits on Ben's new wife, Libby (Sarah Rutan), then hits Ben with his fists. The mysterious Pike (Mark Murphey), a denizen of the basement, where he cares for the Gordons' furnace, launches into a full-blown rave-up about the betrayal of the American Dream at the drop of a clinker.

The effect of all this is unbalancing, as if we somehow keep dropping into the middle of a scene with no backstory. Just what are these people on about?

This ambitious, richly textured production, directed by former long-time OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel and featuring some of the OSF's finest actors, struggles mightily to impose some kind of order on Odets' mad, sprawling (two dozen characters), plotless paean to the middle-class blues, 1930s-style.

In the end it does not succeed, and one wonders if any production of the play can do so. The original production, staged on Broadway when Odets was white-hot in the wake of "Waiting for Lefty" and "Awake and Sing," confused critics and audiences and closed after only two months. It has seldom been revived.

Episodes (there is no linear plot) depict Leo's ongoing confusion, son Ben's inability to function and subsequent corruption by Kewpie, Gus's turn to living in an illusory past. Cartoon-like characters pop up: drunken Tammany Hall functionary Phil Foley (Bill Geisslinger), the sluttish Libby, whose low-backed dress could have revealed one of those butt tattoos, failed musician Pearl (Elisa Bocanegra) and her failed musician beau Felix (David Salsa), the strange Mr. May (Brad Whitmore).

May is what the mob calls a "torch," burning failing businesses to collect the insurance. He's been brought in by Sam, to Leo's horror, as a last resort. He is beyond the pale, but in an ironic twist is one of the only sane characters in this mad world, providing a service for which there is lots of demand.

The only other grounded characters are Leo's wife, Clara (Linda Alper), who tries to hold everything together, and some oppressed workers from Leo and Sam's factory who come to demand better wages and working conditions.

Conservative critics hated "Paradise Lost" and said, foolishly, that it was Marxist. Critics of the Left hated it because nobody save maybe the workers, small parts, has any political consciousness.

It's often been said to be Chekhovian, and if it were, who better to bring that out than Chekhovphile Appel? But Odets' themes and concerns are more grounded in social class and history than Chekhov's.

In Chekhov's world, characters have lunch and the world changes. In Odets' world, Clara tries to get people to take a piece of fruit, but madmen keep running in and ranting.

Odets' world is less fatalistic than Chekhov's. The rich run the system, and the workers are clear what's what. Only the middle class, represented by the suffering Leo, is confused, foolishly blaming fate for its misery. Which is why it's so shocking when reality keeps injecting itself in the form of Kewpie, Foley or downtrodden workers.

Appel stages all this in the tradition of stage realism, with Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's realistic take on the Gordons' living room setting the tone. One wonders what effect a slightly surreal design might have had, something that reinforced all that craziness.

Amid all the pain and horror, Odets has compassion for his characters, and Appel hones in on it. The play crackles with smart dialog that mixes wisecracks and street slang and towering flights of heightened feeling, culminating in a strange, final, hopeful speech by Leo.

Appel has said that Leo's speech voices a subtext of hope. Whether it's that or another illusion, it is certainly a break with everything up to that moment. Audiences in 1935 found it tough to buy, and it remains so today.

From left, Pike (Mark Murphey), Leo Gordon (Michael J. Hume) and Gus Michaels (Richard Elmore) toast the good old days in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s new production “Paradise Lost.”