If audiences at the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ “Paradise Lost” are left thinking that the point of this revival of the Depression-era drama “is that nothing has changed, then we’ve failed,” director Daniel Fish said a few days before Saturday’s opening.

If audiences at the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Clifford Odets’ “Paradise Lost” are left thinking that the point of this revival of the Depression-era drama “is that nothing has changed, then we’ve failed,” director Daniel Fish said a few days before Saturday’s opening.


“That would be avoiding the real issues of the play – the human issues, issues of loss, and the tension between social responsibility and self-interest,” Fish continued, describing the emotional struggles the Gordon family undergo as they watch the comfortable, middle-class life they’ve worked so hard to build disintegrate during the years of the economic catastrophe.


To help the audience avoid the easy conclusion that a story set during the Great Depression is simply about history repeating itself in these uncertain times, Fish, with designer, Andrew Lieberman, has created a decidedly contemporary-looking production. The set that represents the Gordons’ home has none of the overstuffed and ornate trappings that might be found in a house that belonged to a successful businessman in the 1930s. Rather, the props are simple and spare, made of materials, said Fish, that are used today in prefab construction. Beyond that, the central prop is an abstract construction. As can be seen from a model of the set, it is a series of slabs placed atop one another at various angles, upon which much of the characters’ interaction takes place.


His provocative interpretation of “Paradise Lost” also includes videos projected on a screen at the back of the stage that embroider the live action and are considered by Fish to be “another character in the play.” At 42, the New Jersey native who studied theater at Northwestern University, interned 20 years ago at the A.R.T. – but is only now putting on his first show there – has over the years acquired an amazingly eclectic repertoire by such diverse playwrights as Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde and Mamet. He’s also peripatetic, putting on plays in various parts of the world, including Berlin, which he considers his second home – New York’s his first – directing there with the use of two scripts, one in English, the other in German.


“Theater there is part of the culture. People go all the time,” he said, recalling his fondness for German theater.


Because it’s heavily subsidized by the government, artists like Fish feel free to experiment and take chances, as are the audiences, he pointed out. “On one street there could be five American Repertory Theatres.” While he loves the classics, attributing his artistic vision to Shakespeare, “it’s how I approach language and acting,” Fish by no means believes these masterpieces should be treated as though they were preserved in amber.


“Plays happen in the present. I think whether you’re doing a Shakespeare play or one by Tony Kushner, whether it’s set in the 1600s or 2010, it’s like a football game; it’s happening now. That’s how you achieve spontaneity and emotional discovery. That’s what I think theater is all about, especially this play.”


Thin as a whippet, with dark, curly hair, a beard and moustache, Fish has wanted to do “Paradise Lost” for at least five years. He finally got that opportunity when he learned that the A.R.T.’s artistic director, Diane Paulus, was planning to mount this season several American plays from the ’20s and ’30s. The appeal of this particular play, he has said, is that Odets tapped “into the American psyche,” which is forever torn between selfishness and the urge to do good.


“Paradise Lost,” which premiered in 1935, has seldom been revived due to its large cast and the widely held perception that it’s an ideological play.


“Some time ago I spoke to Odets’ son, and he said that many people have the mistaken idea that his father was a political writer. But he wasn’t; he was a psychologist and more than that, he was a man of the theater.” That is borne out in the poetic language of his plays – “Awake and Sing,” Waiting for Lefty” and “Rocket to the Moon,” which Fish also has directed.


“It is my task to make the play honest,” Fish said.


The Patriot Ledger


PARADISE LOST Written by Clifford Odets, directed by Daniel Fish. Performed by the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge. Feb. 27- March 20. $25-$75. 617-547-8300; www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.