REVIEWSTheatre Reviews

George Orwell’s 1984

Adapted by Andrew White1984-7893

Directed by Hallie Gordon

Produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company

An Unusually Personal 1984

In a note in the program, Steppenwolf educational director Hallie Gordon says that, upon rereading George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel 1984, she noticed how much the story focuses on the personal impact of the terror state. Orwell, whose birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, was a political theorist and democratic socialist, and his most famous novels were in-depth critiques of totalitarianism, with heavy historical and philosophical content. Last year, Steppenwolf produced an original adaptation of Animal Farm, his satire of Soviet politics up until the time of its writing in 1946. This year, Gordon has chosen to revive the adaptation of 1984 Andrew White wrote for Lookingglass in 2004 (not to be confused with Michael Sullivan’s adaptation from 2006). The play is only ninety minutes long, which isn’t enough to explore the political themes Orwell was interested in, and the adaptation has been rewritten to focus more heavily on the childhood and inner monologue of the central character, Winston Smith. Though this is not the 1984 I would have liked, the hundreds of teenagers at the performance I attended sat transfixed, and responded with sharp intakes of breath and murmurings to the show’s weightier moments. Therefore, as a dramatic aid to teaching, Steppenwolf’s show is quite the success.

All photos by Joe Mazza, of Brave Lux.
Matthew Abraham (top) and Adam Poss (bottom)

Winston Smith (Adam Poss) is a low-ranking member of The Party, the ruling organization in the militaristic superpower Oceania. His job is to forge and alter documents so that whatever The Party and its leader, Big Brother, are saying at the moment, appears to have always been true and just. His tasks include editing historical reports to say that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia or Eastasia, depending on which one it is fighting with at the moment, claiming that Oceania is incredibly productive and enjoys an ever-increasing standard of living despite obvious evidence to the contrary all around, and that the Thoughtpolice are constantly apprehending traitors and saboteurs who are nonetheless such a grave threat to the nation, that paranoia is fully justified. Privately, Winston has come to hate The Party, which murdered his parents and forces him to live under constant surveillance and deprivation. Since The Party is also vehemently opposed to sex and personal intimacy of any kind, an affair seems like a revolutionary act, and Winston is instantly smitten with Julia (Atra Asdou), another employee of the ironically named Ministry of Truth.

The Party claims to be battling an organized resistance led by the mysterious Emmanuel Goldstein. Though Winston and Julia find the greatest happiness they have ever known in a hideaway they rent above an antique store, Winston dreams that something might topple The Party forever. He hopes, based on a mere feeling, that O’Brien (Lance Baker), a member of the inner ranks of The Party, might be a friend. His hope appears to be vindicated when O’Brien invites him to a private meeting, and gives him a copy of Goldstein’s fabled book, which exposes all the lies and contradictions The Party’s ideology, called Ingsoc (a bastardization of “English Socialism”), is based on. However, Winston and Julia’s rebellion soon leads them into the most horrifying dungeons of the Thoughtpolice, where even love is helpless before power.

Lance Baker and Adam Poss

Gordon said that she consciously cast Adam Poss to be a younger and more attractive Winston than he is described as in the book. White’s adaptation also makes him a lot nicer. There is an original character, called Tillotson (Dennis William Grimes), who gets arrested, and Winston describes as “a friend.” One of Orwell’s major points was that the trust and selflessness required for friendship are impossible amid paranoia, and that Winston disliked his co-workers, Syme (Elizabeth Birnkrant), Parsons (Manny Buckley), Ampleforth (Tyrone Phillips), and at first, Julia. With the rewrite’s focus on his inner child (Matthew Abraham) and downplaying of his bitterness, Winston is more of an everyman, but his stated willingness to commit any atrocity for the good of the resistance and out of hatred for purity seems to come out of nowhere. However, the teenagers at the talk-back said that they found his whirlwind romance with Julia plausible with these changes. The quiet moments shared between the two lovers are the ones I found most effective in the parts of the play corresponding with the first two thirds of the book, and Asdou’s performance successfully injects spontaneity and affection into an otherwise dismal world.

Atra Asdou and Adam Poss

The play really hits its stride in the final third. Before then, its biggest problem is that the newscasts, which are designed to keep Oceanians in a perpetual war fervor, are surprisingly flat. A newscaster announces that they have won the biggest military victory in history in the same tone he would use to announce a study about the health benefits of cabbage. The intensity of the third part is mostly due to Lance Baker’s performance as O’Brien, who captures the essence of his character even in this abbreviated form. I realized while listening to the student’s reactions to him that White and Gordon’s changes actually work well for this audience. I don’t know how much political theory they have studied, but it’s probably not enough for them to engage confidently with Orwell’s arguments. But as people who spend all day in school, they do understand how being surrounded by petty power-mongering and institutional incompetence hardens and exhausts a person. This adaptation also avoids the trap of last year’s Animal Farm by not focusing on exposition at the expense of action, and Andrew Rovner’s original music brilliantly upholds the balance of making the story more theatrical, while demonstrating Ingsoc’s grip on society. Plus, the students probably will be assigned 1984 in literature class, so they’re not missing anything, just getting an incentive to read.


Jacob Davis
[email protected]

Reviewed October 24, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see 1984’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N Halsted St, Chicago. Tickets are $20 with discounts for students; to order call 312-335-1650 or visit Public performances are Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm through November 15. Running time is ninety minutes.