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Sprawling Paradise Lost draws economic parallels
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Sprawling Paradise Lost draws economic parallels

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Paradise Lost
Intiman Theatre
Through April 25


"Paradise Lost" is a good title. It was good enough for the poet Milton and his 10,000 lines of verse describing Adam and Eve's fall from grace. Clifford Odets liked it enough to use as the title of one of his plays, now at Intiman Theatre in a rare presentation. Odets' fall from grace is set during the years subsequent to the crash of 1929, which propelled the United States into the Great Depression. Intiman thinks the parallels to the Great Recession (as we are now apparently calling these years) are close enough to get us thinking of the similarities and differences between these eras.

As we know, one of the biggest differences between the Great Depression and the Great Recession is the "safety net," composed of aid to dependent children (welfare), unemployment insurance, and retirement (social security). In 1933, the year the play is set, people had not yet conceived of these government programs, so poverty was pretty dangerous. If you were hungry, you could starve to death, and if you were homeless, you might never regain housing again. Though this wasn't so very long ago, it's long enough so that it can seem like the dark ages. It's one of the reasons that the economic model of communism sparked such a passionate, utopian ideal: Each would get what he/she needed (no more poverty, starvation, death from want), and each would give what he/she had available (strong people could labor, intelligent people could organize), and no one would prosper at anyone else's expense.

At the end of Paradise Lost, Odets has the patriarch who has lost everything spout a rousing speech about how people will know a time when there is no such thing as bankruptcy, and will sing while they work! If you don't ascribe that speech to the ideal engendered by communism, and Odets' fealty to the concept, you'd probably think the character was just totally nuts. No bankruptcies? When? Here we are in 2010, and we have plenty of bankruptcies - just like then.

The rest of the play is a study in how history can repeat itself, and how the same "frills" (art and music) can be considered unnecessary when you don't have money to pay basic bills. The Gordon family (a deliberately un-Jewlike Jewish family, per Odets' desire to have the play apply to "everyone") has been hanging on during the Depression, but the business is finally just about broke and they are losing their home and financial stability. The daughter who excels at piano can't make a living, nor can the son who brought glory to the neighborhood as an Olympic runner.

The play is not considered Odets' most artistic work, with its sprawling cast, semi-poetic monologues, and sheer length (be prepared for three acts and two intermissions), but Intiman's production clips along and displays interesting characters, cantankerous politics, and recreates the bustle of the New York neighborhood. It is the whirl of life, both the temptations and realities. Should you abandon your values to save yourself by criminal means? Do failures to achieve greatness and make a living through talent (running, piano) mean that you are failures at life?

The generally strong cast is supported by Mama Lori Larsen as the matriarch who stands by, feeds everyone, and offers her advice as a personal favor. Her advice might have made a difference if it were heeded. Michael Mantell as the patriarch is elegant but passive, though that might befit his last speech for utopia, showing just how out of touch he is with reality. Erin Bennett in the small role of the daughter shows the bitterness of giving up even love when finances don't allow. Matt Gottlieb is the mouthpiece of acceptance and adjustment as the neighbor/in-law who moves in when his own finances fail. Hershel Sparber is the voice of past regret and bitterness. Bradley Goodwill is the backstabbing long-time employee who embezzles and justifies. His wife, in a small but heartbreaking role by Marty Mukhalian, shows unexpected grace and forgiveness in her understanding of her husband's frailties, even as he abuses her.

The younger, restless generation is represented by the runner son, Shawn Law, who succumbs to his friend's importunities (Tim Gouran) to become a criminal at the same time his friend is destabilizing his marriage. Elise Karolina Hunt, the wife, does a nice job in a thinly fleshed out role of disdainful, self-centered and confused Libby.

Set design by Tom Buderwitz allows for a comfortable home to give way to see through walls of a skeletonized house. Sound designer Joseph Swartz blends interior piano music beautifully into scene changes. Dialect coach Judith Shahn helps everyone get well located in the sound of the language. For more information, go to www.intiman.org or call 206-269-1900.

Comments on reviews go to sgncritic@gmail.com.

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