By Daniel Skora
George Orwell may very well yet be proven right: governments may come to control not only our every action but our thought processes as well. What he didn’t get right was that freedom dies slowly, and his novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, which was published in 1949, gave the process leading to total control but 35 years to come to fruition. 1984 has come and gone along with an additional thirty-plus years, and if the metaphor of the “rough beast” from W.B. Yeats’ classic poem “The Second Coming” can be appropriated to stand for the political forces that have taken over Oceania and the will of the people, it’s still today “slouching towards Bethlehem”.
“1984”, Michael Gene Sullivan’s adaptation of Orwell’s cautionary tale about life as it would be led under a government unchecked by the restraints of truth, privacy, and morality, is currently being presented by the Williamston Theatre. Like the novel, it tells a dark and frightening story about the depths to which humanity can be reduced by a totalitarian government that monitors its every movement.
Oceania is one of three large geopolitical states left after the great global war. Winston Smith (David Wolber) is one of its citizens, a member of the Outer Party whose job at the Ministry of Truth is to purge history of anything which does not reflect the current party line. Winston, however, develops an interest in life as it was lived before Big Brother stepped in. He begins keeping a diary in an area of his one-room apartment where he believes he is out of range of the telescreens which monitor his every move.
As it happens, he crosses paths with a woman named Julia (Robin Lewis-Bedz), and though he initially despises her, he looks at her in a new light when he discovers she has political leanings similar to his own. They begin having liaisons in the country and in a rented room above an out-of-the-way antiques store. After making his anti-Big Bother sentiments known to O’Brien, who turns out to be an agent for the Thought Police, Winston is arrested and delivered to the Ministry of Love. His confiscated diary is used as proof that he is guilty of thought crimes. He is tortured with electroshock and forced to undergo a mind-altering experience in Room 101 where a confrontation with what he fears most will push his psyche to the breaking point.
The entire story of 1984 plays out in the confines of an interrogation room where flashbacks are interspersed with “live” action. Wolber, in an extremely emotional portrayal of Winston, remains chained through most of the play. During flashbacks, he is played by Brandy Joe Plambeck. Plambeck and Lewis-Bedz, along with Tobin Hissong and Curran Jacobs, play the Members of the Party, a kind of a Greek chorus of fear and intimidation. Even while contributing to the play’s frightening mood, the chorus’ contributions come off as too much theatricality in a show otherwise grounded in realism. John Lepard has both off- and on-stage duties, first as the Voice, a grand inquisitor whose job is to both frighten and subjugate the disoriented prisoner, then as the Party’s exalted leader who administers the finishing touches on the by now totally helpless Winston.
Sullivan’s “1984” is a reasonable representation of a novel that history shows will never go out of style. Governments and politicians of every stripe and persuasion keep chipping away at our freedoms, sometimes in the name of freedom itself. Williamston’s production brilliantly captures the tone of the novel and of Sullivan’s script. It’s tense, dark, and disturbing. Wolber is terrific, and his performance is one to savor. See the show as a finely xecuted example of drama on a grand scale.
“1984” is directed by Tony Caselli. Scenic design is by Kirk Domer. Lighting is by Shannon T. Schweitzer and lighting by Jason Painter Price. Costume design is by Holly Iler, props by Michelle Raymond, and stage manager is Paige Conway.
“1984” runs through April 23rd. Tickets can be purchased by phone Tuesday through Friday from noon to 6:00p.m., by calling 1.517.655.7469, by visiting the Williamston box office, or ordered online up until 24 hours prior to the performance by going online at www.williamstontheatre.org. Williamston Theatre is located at 122 S. Putnam Road in downtown Williamston. If you’re westward bound on I-96, exit at 117.