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The cast of Woody Sez (Photo: Wendy Mutz)

One of the things I love about India is that the stories most sacred to the culture are preserved everywhere. From street shrines to oversized temple statues, references to the ancient Sanskrit epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are ubiquitous. After a while even interlopers like me get good at finding Rama, the Monkey King Hanuman and the Demon Ravana.

Those songlines run deep in subcontinental consciousness, but they also remind me that we have songlines of our own even if they are not quite as ancient. One of the stories most Americans know is about the Great Depression and the devastation of the Dust Bowl. Drought and farming practices in the 1930s led to the loss of millions of acres of farmland, forcing hundreds of thousands of “Okies” to become homeless migrants in search of work at a time when jobs were scarce.

Woody Guthrie lived through the indignities of that era, writing music that came to stand for the rights of the disenfranchised. He believed in “singing for the plain folks and getting tough with the rich folks.” Guthrie lived what he wrote, and his music was for those who were living the “left out” life too. Without Guthrie we have no Pete Seeger, no music of protest, no Bob Dylan. He’s our lynchpin.

Woody Sez, currently at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge before heading next to Germany (cool!) and Chicago, is an unforgettable retelling of that American epic story through the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. A quartet of multi-talented performers—David Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and Andy Teirstein—will grab you from the get go and never let you go. The music is nonstop, and every member of this high energy, well-rehearsed quartet can sing and play muliple instruments. The staging is simple and the set unadorned, just as it should be. And just as Woody would have wanted it.

The relevance of this story for today’s times is powerful. To state the obvious—that we live in a culture that rewards greed, selfishness and personal aggrandizement at any cost—often ends up sounding like a broken record that no longer has any bite. But watching this performance put our American songline of injustice and income inequality into a context that is much deeper and more profound than I had expected.

I absolutely loved seeing Woody Sez, and I would recommend it to everyone.

A few examples of Woody Sez:

Was a great high wall there that tried to stop me, A sign was painted said: “Private Property”, But on the back side, it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.

Life has got a habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, that is just about like trying to milk a dead cow.

I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim or too ugly or too this or too that.

It’s round the world I’ve traveled; it’s round the world I’ve roamed; but I’ve yet to see an outlaw drive a family from its home.

If you play more than two chords, you’re showing off.

Guthrie in 1944 (Photo: Associated Press)

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 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.