Paradise Lost, at the A.R.T. (Photo: A.R.T.)

Watching the spectacle of a family coming unraveled has a long history. Greek dramas specialize in showing us the multi-generational demise of families, from the cursed House of Thebes in the Oedipus trilogy to the murderous implosion of the House of Atreus in “The Oresteia”. A particular strain of family dismantling drama deals with the dissolution of a family due to financial woes, and the most famous example of that genre is Chekhov’s legendary “The Cherry Orchard”.

“Paradise Lost”, written by Clifford Odets 75 years ago, is an American Depression era take on the family-in-financial-freefall theme that played out with pre-revolutionary Russian poignancy in “The Cherry Orchard” 30 years earlier. But unlike Chekhov’s aristocratic milieu, “Paradise Lost” centers around an everyman, solidly middle-class family, the Gordons. Over a two year span we watch them as their world unravels, a process that is set into motion by the economic collapse of 1929. By the end of the play, the lives of their children have been irrevocably compromised, they have lost their home, and what few belongings they still have are sitting out on the street.

For anyone viewing this play in 2010, the similarities between the Gordons of 1935 and the tent cities full of foreclosed American families are obvious and haunting. But to approach Odets’ play primarily as a prescient foreshadowing of our current economic and cultural woes is to miss much of its richness. Odets was an outspoken socialist who was enraged by the exploitative profiteering of the 30’s, and his political views are apparent in the play. But always rising to the surface in this story is Odets’ humanism: his characters struggle with how to live with honor, with a moral code and their integrity intact, especially when the most basic elements of survival are at stake. How differently Odets views his characters’ struggles when compared to other family-based contemporary dramas, like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night” or anything by Harold Pinter. The tone of the play is sympathetic, empathetic, nonjudgmental. And even with its starkly bleak ending, it is not without a redemptive note.

“I believe in the vast potentialities of mankind,” Odets wrote to the critic John Mason Brown. “But I see everywhere a wide disparity between what they can be and what they are. This is what I want to say in writing.”

The film director Krzysztof Kieślowski came to my mind while I was watching the performance. His approach to storytelling also speaks to an Odets-like humanism. In an interview published some time ago, Kieślowski said that he wanted to make films about real people and real life. People make really bad decisions he said, usually when they are still young, and then they spend the rest of their lives managing around those catastrophic mistakes. That’s what being human is about, says Kieślowski; we all suffer from our bad choices, from our personal failures of judgment.

Odets’ play does not have the gentle benevolence of Kieślowski’s masterpiece trilogy, “Red”, “White” and “Blue”. But beneath the vitriol that Odets gives voice to in “Paradise Lost” is an undeniable alignment with what is human, even in the face of our glaring failures and shortcomings.

The production at American Repertory Theater, directed by Daniel Fish, is a brave and ambitious undertaking. Some scenes felt inspired and others didn’t quite come together. The set, a postmodern plywood assemblage with an arte povera feel, worked well as a foundation for all three acts. Video is incorporated, projected on the uneven surfaces at the back of the set which spoke to the dismantling we are witnessing in these character’s lives. The first act felt unwieldy and slow to engage (I went on opening night, so the blocking for that first act may still be evolving) but things tightened up considerably in acts two and three. As I have come to expect with most A.R.T. productions, the performances were all strong and well defined.

Just a note about American Repertory Theater: Diane Paulus began her artistic directorship of the A.R.T.in Cambridge this year, and it has been the most memorable season in my 25+ years as a subscriber. I’ve written about two of the productions here—“Sleep No More” in Theater App, or Something Else? and “Gatz” in Gatz. Also presented this season: “The Donkey Show”, and “Best of Both Worlds”, both free wheeling variations on Shakesperean narratives.

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