Friday, Jun 23, 2017

Paradise Lost (2009)

Photo by Jenny Graham

As in 2008, a 20th century American play is debuting a half-season at OSF in July. It is again directed by Libby Appel. Then, as now, there is a solid cast. So what’s the difference between them; A View From The Bridge won uniformly high praise? Like the man said, “the play’s the thing”. Paradise Lost is difficult to honor as a “forgotten treasure.” A product of the 1930s, the play tells a vivid story of a middle class in decline. What we’re supposed to take from it, however, is either inscrutable or overly simplistic, take your pick.

As I said at the outset, there’s a lot right about this production, traits that it shares with last year’s View. Marjorie Bradley Kellogg delivers an authentic, lavish set covering two floors of a house – a trademark of a Libby Appel production. The costuming by Anita Yavich is immaculate – so often there’s at least one suit or gown that is just a skooch too theatrical or makes use of an odd fabric, but everything on stage looked practically vintage. The cast, led by Michael J. Hume as family patriarch Leo Gordon, is clearly motivated and passionate about the work they’re presenting. The problems really do boil down to the play itself. I hesitate to write this because I’m not really sure that I’m cut out for literary criticism, but the fact remains that Ms. Appel has the “political capital” to produce basically any play she wants at OSF (within considerations of season balance and such) and so the choice of this play is essentially an artistic one. Why this play?

Paradise Lost is broken into three acts, marking the decline of the Gordon family (and various hangers on) in 1932, 1934, and 1935. Decline is the only word for it. There’s no real tension to the storytelling nor any hint that any character will redeem his or herself. I struck up a conversation with a lovely woman sitting next to me. At the beginning of each intermission we’d swap 1st impressions of who was likely to meet which grisly end, and when we would sit down in preparation for the next act we’d make friendly wagers over exactly who would end up where. Whichever of us had the most morbid outlook on a character invariably won. There is a speech at the very end of the play by Leo in which he attests to the fact that nothing lasts forever, we’re in this together, things have to get better, and so on, and it’s true that it’s a hopeful sentiment (as is noted in the director’s notes in the Playbill), but this speech is apropos of nothing: as he says these things he’s being evicted from his house, one of his remaining children is being carted off to a hospital to die, another is already dead, and the third is heartbroken at the eviction. His best friend has sold his prize possession for far less than he expected in order to help with the household debts (and is implied to be ignoring many other debts to do so), and a homeless man has just told Leo that the Gordons are basically one torn pair of trousers away from being hobos. There’s nothing in the play to explain why Leo would have the faintest scintilla of hope, not so much as a twittering songbird on the windowsill.

I understand that difficult plays are sometimes valuable windows on the human condition; one could say that Paradise Lost shows a parallel to the desperate times we’re in. If we’re to draw any lessons from it, though, they would be that the hopeful man is also the delusional man, and that we’re all heading up the creek without a paddle. An awful lot of genuine mastercraft went in to a serious downer of a play.