Chapel Street Players launch their 83rd season with 1984, the powerful and disturbingly provocative dystopian tale of a world ruthlessly controlled by a totalitarian government. Based on George Orwell’s chilling classic novel, 1984, adapted for the stage by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall, and William A. Miles, Jr., is a horrifying view of a society completely controlled by the government where, under the watchful eye of the all-knowing, all-seeing, Big Brother, war is peace, slavery is freedom, and independent thought, especially in opposition to the government constitutes thoughtcrime and means arrest, torture, death…or perhaps something far worse.
Directed most ably by Judith A. David, 1984 is set in London, now part of the totalitarian
superstate of Oceania, which is perpetually at war and ruled with an iron fist by The Inner Party. The party leader (who may or may not exist), the ever-vigilant Big Brother, is a ubiquitous dictator who has history rewritten to support the ever-changing party line and who constantly spies on and manipulates Oceana’s citizens, brutally punishing anyone who dares consider political freedom or independent thought. Winston Smith (Patrick Cathcart) is a drudge at the Ministry of Truth, responsible for rewriting (erasing and reinventing) history, and becomes disillusioned. Winston is an Outer Party member who has come to loathe the oppressive regime and who falls in love with Julia, another dissident. As one might expect from a dystopian drama, there is no fairytale ending. The ill-fated couple is betrayed, arrested by the Thought Police, and hauled off to the Ministry of Love to be tortured and brainwashed.
Cathcart portrays Winston as a serious, passionate, rebel, but shines most brightly in the second act, when Winston is tortured by O’Brien (Zachary Jackson), a sadistic member of the Inner Party. Cathcart and Jackson’s performance is impactful. There is a dynamic energy between the two characters that becomes supercharged during the interrogation scenes and underscores the abusive relationship between O’Brien and Winston.
Jackson’s O’Brien is an efficient tormentor who finds gleeful satisfaction in reconverting Winston to a party loyalist through torture and brainwashing. The torture scenes elicited audible gasps from audience members. The faint of heart should take note.
Julia (Danielle Jackomin) feels no loyalty to Big Brother and The Party, but her method of rebellion is quite different from Winston’s. Julia manages to get herself transferred to Winston’s department to be near him and then confesses her love for Winston. In the novel, Julia uses sex to rebel against Big Brother and is not as morally concerned with revolution as Winston. In the play, however, Julia and Winston marry, which is perhaps a higher form of rebellion in a world that places no value on such traditions. Julia’s focus remains sensuality and making a happy little home for herself and Winston, risking all to bring her husband little treats like real coffee and sugar, but Julia also examines her reasons for rebelling, adding dimension to the character which Ms. Jackomin adeptly brings to the stage.
Brooks Black and Walt Osborne deliver fine performances as Parsons and Syme, conveying to the audience their sheer exhaustion from constantly concealing their innermost thoughts, their fear of one day being exposed as thought criminals, and their paranoia at constantly living their lives in full view of the telescreen and the omnipresent Big Brother.
The talents of other actors in the production also warrant mention, Jason Beil as the ruthless First Guard (as well as Goldstein’s Voice and Martin), Sedric Willis as Second Guard (and Big Brother’s Voice), and most notably Heather McCarty who takes a delightful turn as the incongruously nostalgic landlady.
Director Judith David based the style and appearance of the show on Orwell’s idea that the machine can liberate mankind…but also enslave it. Set designer Brian Touchette took David’s vision and crafted a dazzling set. Touchette, with the combined talents of lighting designer, Rick Neidig, technical/visual effects designer, Peter Kuo, and sound designer, Adrian Hartwig, employ telescreens, slogans (i.e. “Ignorance is Strength),” and many eyes watching to immerse CSP audiences in a propaganda-driven Orwellian world.
George Orwell’s unsettling dystopian novel was classified as science fiction when it was published in 1949. Nearly 70 years later, in an era of alternative facts, e-mail hacks, Russia’s election meddling, so-called fake news, and propaganda laced posts on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, Orwell’s prophetic tale and his chilling warning that “who controls the past controls the future and who controls the present controls the past,” still resonates with 2017 audiences—1984 is more relevant than ever.
Chapel Street Players’ production of 1984 is double plus good and highly recommended.
1984 runs through October 14. Call the box office at (302) 368-2248 or visit www.chapelstreetplayers.org to reserve your tickets today.