Intiman opens its first season with Kate Whoriskey

By R.M. Campbell

The opening gambit of any artistic director is often a sign of what to come in terms of style and intent. And so, one looks at Clifford Odets’ “Paradise Lost,” which opened last weekend at Intiman Theater, with considerable interest, for it is the inaugural gesture of the company’s new artistic director Kate Whoriskey, even though she did not stage the play.

Odets is a fixture in the American theater scene, not only with his plays but also his deep involvement in the Group Theatre. “Paradise Lost,” premiered the same year, 1935, as his most celebrated play, “Awake and Sing!” but it is not done so often. There is reason for that. It is play of problems in character development and narrative thrust. Yet the play projects a resonance in today’s world, which must have been the attraction to Whoriskey who makes a point about the play’s relevance. Indeed it has a social conscience, like most of Odets’ plays, and a little bit of a polemic, but its strength lies in its characters and how they deal, or fail to deal, with their personal circumstances in the Great Depression. The years — 1933-1936 — in which the play is set, are deep in that Depression with no sunlight just around the corner. These characters can be vastly irritating, self-serving, self-pitying, self-destructive and tiring. They are all beaten down except Clara Gorden, played with such acumen by Lori Larsen. Collectively, they are over the top with their neuroses. Still one wishes them a better life.

It is said of this play that Odets wanted to project happiness and optimism, and gives Leo Gordon a major speech to that effect at the end. One can see it that way but one can also see it as so much shouting in the wind by the ineffectual intellectual, albeit a good man, whose life is in shambles. For me it is a speech in a major key that pushes aside the more natural minor key, to keep despair at bay. It does not ring true to the audience as well as the other members of his family. What everyone else understands but he does not is that he brought much of this onto his family.

What is simulating is that “Paradise Lost” is a slice of Americana in its speech, its characters. That is one of the major assets of Odets’ work as well as Damaso Rodriguez’s staging. It is a lesson in accents, attitudes and styles that are distant from ourselves but not as far as might think. The economic problems faced by Odet’s characters are not so unlike many face today. We are just as impotent in the face of larger forces as they are.

Larsen’s Clara is the heart of the play. She has no illusions but she listens to others with sympathy. She is the relief to the others in the family and its circle of friends. Larsen captures Clara’s humanity, wisdom and street smarts. It is a superb portrait. Michael Mantell’s Leo is lost in his dreams and ideas and does not have the capability to cope. The Gordon children are different in their unhappiness, all played keenly by Erin Bennett, Shawn Law and Eric Pargac, Odets crams a wide mix of personalities and perspectives into the play. Rodriguez makes it all work.

Tom Buderwitz’s set design is apt as are Leah Piehl’s costumes.

The production continues at Intiman through April 25.

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