Paradise Lost | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Paradise Lost 


Victory Gardens Theater

Some stories always work--no matter how basic, they can captivate an audience every time they're told. The classic tale of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, girl's dad gets pissed, and boy and girl meet foolish tragic ending but somehow the spirit of love manages to triumph worked for Shakespeare. It worked for Bernstein and Sondheim. It even worked in the Bible. True, Adam and Eve didn't meet the same tragically romantic end as Romeo and Juliet or Sid and Nancy, but they got kicked out of God's garden, and their kids didn't turn out so well either.

In many ways the ill-fated couple in Steve Carter's gripping period drama Eden, now being revived by Victory Gardens, represent all our favorite star-crossed lovers rolled into two. The youthful passions of Eustace Baylor and Annetta Barton bring about tragedy, but unlike Romeo and Juliet, Eustace and Annetta remain in the world that caused their pain: they must dwell in an uncertain and unhappy land somewhere east of Eden.

Carter's play is set in 1927 in New York City, but its story is timeless. Eustace, a happy-go-lucky African American man, makes the mistake of falling in love with the girl next door, Annetta, daughter of an autocratic West Indian, Joseph Barton, who rules his household with an iron fist: he literally whips his belief in racial purity into his children with a cat-o'-nine-tails.

Needless to say, the prospect of a liaison between Eustace and Annetta does not sit well with him, since he considers Eustace racially less pure, and he scoffs at the concept of love, which in his mind serves no other end than idleness and folly. If his words aren't sufficient to communicate that, the wounds inflicted by his whip leave little room for misinterpretation. The lovers manage to meet, however, as their families conspire to bring them together.

On a rooftop, Eustace and Annetta declare their love for each other while Eustace's pesky Aunt Lizzie, Annetta's eager younger brothers Solomon and Nimrod, and her bookish older sister Agnes keep watch. One hopes this pair will break out of the fateful pattern set by their literary precursors, and as Eustace and Annetta consummate their love there's a glimmer of hope. But soon late-night passion gives way to morning sickness.

Annetta's pregnancy leads to a violent climax as Eustace and Joseph finally come to blows, acting upon the conflicts that have been simmering throughout. We hope that when Eustace pummels Joseph to the ground, the clash of southern American and West Indian cultures will finally end, but Joseph's hateful ideas are not conquered so easily. Though he ends up in a wheelchair and unable to speak, Joseph wields an enduring influence over his family, who continue to worship him as if he were some sort of evil god they've disobeyed. Annetta marries Eustace, but he cannot eradicate her father's teachings. The lovers' passions are extinguished, and we know that their future will be something less than the idyll that existed for only a moment on a rooftop.

Though it contains very few surprises, Eden packs a surprising dramatic wallop: Carter's writing is masterful and Victory Gardens' production, under the direction of Chuck Smith, virtually flawless. This is one of those rare shows in which every element comes together to create a captivating experience. Carter's characters are so rich and thoughtfully drawn that it's impossible not to empathize with them, and his familiar plot is exceedingly well executed; there's a high level of tension throughout the play, and despite its three-hour length, it never drags.

Victory Gardens' eight ensemble members give excellent performances all around: they're consistently believable and a joy to watch. Smith's effortless, unobtrusive direction effectively transports us into 1920s New York--which, regrettably, does not seem all that different from our world today. With so much good work in Eden, it's pointless to single out certain performers, but someone who should be lauded for his technical efforts is set designer James Dardenne: in a single immovable set he's provided the openness of the Baylors' front porch, the stark loneliness of the Bartons' dining room, and the exquisite beauty of the rooftop, which in this play is the closest any of us get to paradise.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Debi Stewart.

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