Imagine a world where invasive technology controls your thoughts, with a culture indifferent and desensitized to violence and public officials who say or do anything to maintain their position of authority. No, we’re not talking about present day, but rather, "1984," George Orwell’s dystopian novel, adapted for the stage by Nick Lane, now making its American debut at the Gamm Theatre.
First published in 1949 and perhaps most famous for coining the term "Big Brother," Orwell’s "1984" depicts Oceania, a fictitious prison colony society under totalitarian rule where history is falsely rewritten and anger and hatred are encouraged, as indicated by the governing body’s omnipresent mantra, "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."
Despite the dense, morose subject matter, Gamm’s production of Lane’s stage version is powerful and haunting, intricately and cleverly directed by Tony Estrella and rife with stellar performances.
The lifeless, basement-like stage appears to be almost deserted and resembles a holding cell, enclosed by a frame of aged, paneled walls tattered with graffiti and worn, indecipherable propaganda items. Most disconcertingly, at its center hangs a large, flat "telescreen," transmitting a video image of a probing, human eye, reminding onlookers that Big Brother is always ominously watching.
At the story’s center is Winston Smith, played humbly and willfully by Jim O’Brien, who works for the Ministry of Truth, an entity responsible for distorting the past and present, as directed and mandated to benefit the Party’s interests.
Tormented by visions and dreams of the past, where the world appears differently than described in the Ministry’s archives, Winston breaks the Party’s cardinal rule simply by supposing that an alternate reality is (or was) even remotely possible.
The rebellious Winston embarks upon an illegal, secret love affair with Julia (Georgia Cohen), a fellow subversive thinker, and the two join forces to seek and potentially recruit like-minded insurgents. The couple becomes acquainted with O’Brien (Richard Noble), a renowned member and leader of an underground anti-Party crusade known as the Brotherhood. All hope for a post-Party future is likely lost, though, when their trust in O’Brien has pernicious results.
Noble, who like most of the cast takes on several roles, is especially brilliant as the terrifying, two-faced O’Brien. The culminating torture scene is reminiscent of the famed sequence between Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier from the film, "Marathon Man," and Noble’s disposition makes the audience cringe. Jed Hancock-Brainerd is equally impressive as the darkly comic Syme, a Party lauder, and as Charrington, a seemingly sympathetic shopkeeper who befriends Winston.
The always engaging (and vocally inclined) Casey Seymour Kim, whose roles include a combative prison guard and a poverty-stricken mother, continues her winning streak of solid performances, and Cohen’s bold portrayal of Julia is both dignified and purposeful.
Mike Jones’s videography and David Roy’s integral sound and video design deserve special mention for bringing Big Brother’s frightening "Orwellian" imagery to life.
"1984" at the Gamm is inarguably grim, yet compelling and thought-provoking, as theater should be.
"1984" continues through May 27 at The Gamm Theatre, 172 Exchange Street, Pawtucket. For info or tickets, visit The Gamm Theatre’s website.