Iowa City – “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
These chilling words rang out last Friday in Public Space One during the opening performance of 1984, Dreamwell Theatre’s first production of the 2015-2016 season. Adapted from George Orwell’s famous novel, Michael Gene Sullivan’s drama depicts the interrogation of a government bureaucrat, Winston Smith (Duane Larson), charged with crimes against a totalitarian state under the rule of an enigmatic leader called Big Brother. In 1949 a disillusioned Orwell imagined this future world in which all personal freedom and individuality have been eliminated, and debates have raged ever since over how many of his “predictions” have come true.
The play opens with a man lying face down on the floor, a theme-setting image of the human spirit laid low. The setting is stark—a windowless room, four chairs against a wall, an ominous black curtain hung the length of the room. The audience sits on three sides of the stage area, close to and at the same level as the actors. From these simple elements director Gavin Conkling,cast and crew conjure a complex drama that challenges our most fundamental beliefs about the relations between individual and society.
The bulk of Orwell’s story is presented in Act One through a series of flashbacks. Four members of the ruling political Party—dressed in identical drab uniforms—brutally question and torture Smith under the direction of a superior whose voice we hear over a microphone but do not see, reinforcing the sense of the Party’s supreme control. Reading from Smith’s secret diary, the four interrogators reenact his illegal acts and “thought crimes” (ideas that deviate from Party Truth), rapidly changing identities as they become different persons in Smith’s life. One even plays Smith himself. Meanwhile the real Smith watches, comments on, and occasionally participates, all in a desperate attempt to defend himself against his accusers. The pace is rapid and tricky to follow at times, but the fractured continuity serves an important purpose, disorienting the audience in a way that mirrors Smith’s own confusion, and in this way creating greater emotional connection to him.
Despite a few miscues and moments of hesitation, the cast manages the quick changes and precision timing of these scenes very well. Joseph Tranmer, Alexis Russell, Valerie Davine Bills, and Eric Teeter—cold, cruel interrogators one moment—instantly transform themselves into Smith’s associates and friends with simple alterations in voice, posture, and facial expression. Teeter is especially deft, switching to an ill-tempered child, his foolishly proud father, and a doddering old man. Russell exudes warmth and sensuality as Smith’s fellow thought-criminal and lover, Julia, and Tranmer, playing Smith, widens his eyes and adopts a slight stoop to convey his vulnerability. Bills provides the play’s few, and very welcome, lighter moments as the interrogator determined to keep the inquiry on track despite her growing frustration with Smith’s rambling answers and her suspicion that the role-playing is causing the other interrogators to sympathize with Smith. In fact, they are all tempted by the lure of freedom they find in Smith’s transgressive words and deeds, adding a layer of irony to the grimness of the play.
Smith is not really a heroic figure, but an everyman rebelling because the totalitarian state takes away too many basic human needs. Larson captures Smith’s desperation and essential innocence well, but I found him a bit whiny and overly timid in the early scenes. Interestingly, his performance gains in assurance the longer Smith’s ordeal lasts, suggesting that it isn’t principle alone but also exhaustion and exasperation that are driving his continued defiance.
The interrogation takes a terrifying turn in the play’s second half, which abandons recreating the past for dissecting the present. I’ll reveal only that another investigator takes charge, changing the direction and method of the questioning and unveiling its deeper purpose. A new actor, Stephen Ivester, takes center stage, and his presence is electrifying. Soft-spoken, coolly condescending, and utterly menacing, Ivester delivers a superb portrayal of urbane evil. As he zeroes in on Smith’s resolve, the stage darkens except for the two men in the center, the spotlight isolating them and intensifying their struggle as it approaches its climax.
This is the kind of theater I like best, raw and direct. No elaborate sets or costumes, just a few expressive props and effects and a tight-knit group of actors intent on making their story compelling and real to their audience. The execution isn’t flawless, but that doesn’t detract from the play’s impact. 1984‘s themes of power and the loss of privacy and individual freedom are as timely today as ever, perhaps more so in this age of sophisticated government surveillance and ubiquitous social media. The calendar year 1984 has long gone by, but the number remains symbolic of something timeless—the future destruction of our humanity if, not having learned from the past, we lose control of the present. Dreamwell’s production should be seen and its message kept always in mind.