Long before the popular dystopian fiction of The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner series, there was George Orwell’s 1984, a novel on the required reading list of most high school students of my generation. The stage adaptation by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall, Jr. and William A. Miles, Jr. is currently being given a stellar production at The Sherman Playhouse under the direction of Kevin Sosbe.
Winston Smith (Alex Echevarria) spends his days at the Ministry of Truth, where his job is to remove “unpersons” from historical documents, deleting the people who have been eliminated or “vaporized” from the Party’s version of the truth. He works alongside Syme (Bruce Tredwell) and Parsons (Kit Colbourn) who work diligently to rid the world of Oldspeak (Standard English) and replace it with Newspeak, a streamlined language devoid of flowery adjectives or superlatives. As they plow through their day, the omnipresent Big Brother (John Taylor) watches their every move through the telescreen.
When Julia (Carly Phypers) becomes employed at the Ministry of Truth, Winston recognizes her as someone that he’s seen several times before. He initially assumes that she is a member of the Thought Police and that she has been sent to spy on him. When Winston confronts her, she professes her love for him and two get secretly married, aided by their Inner Party friend, O’Brien (Viv Berger). In their room rented from the Landlady (Noel Desiato), Winston and Julia enjoy real coffee while she wears a pretty dress, all luxuries purchased in covert ways and definitely forbidden by the Party.
Winston gleefully reads from “The Book” by Emmanuel Goldstein, the enemy of the state and leader of the Brotherhood, and his independent thought and hatred of the Party become palpable. In short order, Winston and Julia are captured by the Thought Police and are taken in for interrogation at the Ministry of Love. After spending time in Room 101 under O’Brien’s relentless re-education, Winston confesses to his crimes and betrays Julia, his one true love.
While Orwell’s depiction of the year 1984 did not come to fruition in as drastic or well-timed a manner as he predicted, there are elements of his novel that bear frightening resemblance to our modern day world. We are constantly connected, leaving our ever growing and easily accessed digital footprint in our wake. Every experience has been customized to our personal taste and social media cultivates a hoard mentality. In many ways, we are being watched and are being told what to think, whether we know it or not.
In the role of Winston, Alex Echevarria delivers what may well be considered his magnum opus performance. Appearing in every scene, the bulk of the show’s weight rests on his shoulders. Every detail of his performance is sharply honed. His perfect English accent, his intricate physicality and the interpretation and delivery of the text are in top form. Whilst doing his calisthenics, you chuckle at his bumbling participation. When he is giddy with affection, you smile. When he is dismantled to the rawest emotion, you empathize.
As Julia, Carly Phypers is beguiling. She brings to the role the innocence and charm necessary to lure Winston outside of Big Brother’s world. As Winston’s comrades at the Ministry of Truth, Bruce Tredwell and Kit Colbourn are equally thrilled by and fearful of the importance of their work. Viv Berger delivers a deliberate and formidable performance as O’Brien. As the Landlady, Noel Desiato portrays an aging woman with sensitivity and humor.
One of the most effective aspects of the show was the director’s choice to take the Loudspeaker Voices and make them an onstage presence. Denise James and Vicki Sosbe, bedecked in matching blonde hairstyles and black frocks, announce the morning calisthenics, an afternoon execution or a victory at war with a chilling, monotone synchronicity that make you actually wonder whether or not “two plus two make five.”
Rounding out the cast are Maya Daley as the perky Messenger/Coffee Vendor, Mary-Genevieve Mason as Parson’s daughter and devoted Party supporter Gladys and Steve Stott and Chris Marker as the Guards, always a few short steps behind O’Brien.
At the helm of this exceptional cast is Kevin Sosbe, an accomplished theatre artist who has been far too long out of the director’s chair. Known for his outstanding scenic work at the Westport Country Playhouse, Sosbe’s direction is insightful and subtle, sending a shiver up your spine when a particular point is being made. His production design is simple but detailed, from the technicolor telescreen to the propaganda slogans painted on the proscenium to the rented room scrawled with hash marks and the anarchist’s circle-A symbol.
David White’s sound design adds the perfect ambient soundtrack to the performance. Al Chiappetta’s lighting design is specific and dark, portraying the Big Brother’s oppression with cold and unfeeling light. Denise James’ costumes are perfectly institutional in their shades of black and grey.
The Sherman Playhouse’s production of 1984 is splendid because it brings together all of the elements of a well-produced show. The combination of an outstanding cast, superior direction and impressive technical elements make this play worth the trip to the historical theatre, nestled in the hills of Connecticut.
1984 runs at The Shermans Playhouse at 5 Route 39 N in Sherman, CT on April 18, 24, 25 and May 1 and 2 at 8:00pm and on April 19 and May 3 at 2:00pm. Admission is $22. For tickets and more info, visit www.shermanplayers.org.