BWW Review: Steppenwolf for Young Adults 1984 Presents A Bold, Clear Take on Orwell's Classic Novel
Steppenwolf for Young Adults' production of 1984 opens on Collette Pollard's stark, barren set. No objects are present onstage, except for plain wooden sets of drawers on the perimeter and two prison cell-like spaces up above. The stage itself sets the tone for the narrative of what has been described as a "negative utopia": the regimented society that George Orwell laid out in his classic 1949 aimed to suppress original thought and feeling. Orwell's vision for the future was not ideal and optimistic but rather extremely bleak in its depiction of future society. With direction by Hallie Gordon, Andrew White's adaptation of 1984 effectively and clearly tells the story of this oppressive and startling vision of the fictional nation Oceania (a hybrid of the United States and the United Kingdom). As Joseph A. Burke's clever and expertly executed projections bombard audiences with images bordering on a fitting sensory overload, we certainly have the sense that Big Brother is watching over us all.
The concept for this production is bold and visually arresting -- though I could do without the use of iPhones and iPads, as they clearly are part of our current culture rather than Orwell's vision. This production effectively and intelligently brings 1984 to life but I wish it had just a bit more heart to cut through the gloom. The sterile feeling of the staging sometimes overshadows the capable performances, which give the story of 1984 its emotional center.
Audiences, though, will want to root for Adam Poss's sincere and genial protagonist Winston Smith (as I did). Poss emanates a calm, dignified energy throughout the course of the play -- his Winston tries to remain under the radar, even as he remains firm in his convictions. White's adaptation also employs the incredibly effective device of having young Winston (Matthew Abraham) onstage. Though Winston tries to conceal his true thoughts from his co-workers, his young self remains the voice of rebellion and hope amidst the bleakness of Winston's everyday life. There's Syme (Elizabeth Birnkrant, who doubles as Oceania's morning exercise enforcer, in an entertaining turn), who has an obsession with the development of New Speak -- a language that boils English down to the essentials so as to eliminate all attempts at thoughtcrime (original thought). Then there's Ampleforth (a touching Tyrone Phillips), who longs to be a poet but instead must "edit" existing poetry to align with Oceania's core values. There's Parsons (Manny Buckley), who's earnest and sincere in his loyalty to Oceania and Big Brother. And, finally, there's O'Brien (a sinister Lance Baker), who Winston suspects has a hidden agenda -- which reveals itself in time.
Winston feels largely alone, until his co-worker Julia (Atra Asdou) slips him a note one day, and the two strike up a romance. In White's 90-minute adaptation, however, the romance progresses too quickly for us to feel invested in the relationship -- and Julia's character, quirky and feisty in the novel, feels somewhat underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Asdou throws herself into the role with sincerity and earnestness. And Poss makes clear Winston's inner turmoil and agony -- particularly at the end of the play. Here, we do see the performer and the character's true vulnerability.
Steppenwolf for Young Adults' 1984 runs through November 15. Public performances are Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 3 and 7:30pm, and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20. 312-335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org.