When Elizabeth Helman and her colleagues at Oregon State University Theatre started to brainstorm about the productions for this season, all connected to the politically charged theme of "In the Public Eye," one play — "1984" — jumped to the top of the list.
"We really wanted to do pieces that would be relevant to our series and the political climate," Helman said in an interview this week in her office at OSU's Withycombe Hall while her students prepared for a run-through of the show.
"1984," based on George Orwell's dystopian classic, was an obvious choice — and a fitting final production for the season.
As it turns out, though, the order of the season's shows, which included "Rhinoceros," "The Taming" and "Inherit the Wind," was more a function of when directors were available to work on their productions than any planned timetable.
Still, sometimes things work out: "1984" seems like a logical capstone to a provocative season, even if the scheduling wasn't necessarily planned that way. OSU's production of "1984" opens Thursday for a two-weekend run; see the information box for details.
The students featured in Helman's production feel a strong connection to the story: She noted that auditions for the show drew a huge turnout, despite the fact that "this show's really dark."
The students, she said, are "familiar with the novel; they feel connected to it. They want to produce and be part of projects that they feel have something to say."
In fact, most of the students in the show read "1984" in high school. For some of them, that first reading of "1984," in the confines of an English classroom, felt safe.
Returning to the book a second time, to flesh out some of the backstories behind its characters or just to help round out the totalitarian world of Oceania, the students found that some of that sense of safety had slipped away: "There's no net to catch you," said Lindsey Esch, who plays Syme, who works at the Ministry of Truth with protagonist Winston Smith.
"The message of the show is really important," said Nate Pereira, who plays Smith and spends much of the second act (spoiler alert!) being brutalized by Big Brother's henchmen.
But almost as important, Helman said, is building the convincingly depressing and dreary world of "1984," to create a place with the feel of "a nightmare from which you cannot wake." The dark gray sets, usually presided over by an image of Big Brother, help depict that world, as do the utilitarian costumes by DeMara Cabrera. When a costume does feature a splash of color, as with a dress Winston's girlfriend Julia (Bria Love Robertson) dons briefly in the second act, it's a sad reminder of the humanity that mostly has been lost in Oceania's autocracy, where doublespeak rules and thoughtcrime can be punished by death — or, worse, a visit to Room 101. (Fun "1984" fact: Room 101, in real life, was a conference room in the BBC's Broadcasting House where Orwell endured seemingly endless meetings.)
This adaptation of "1984" is not the same version as the production that recently played on Broadway, which reportedly had audience members fainting when the action shifted to Room 101. This adaptation, by Robert Owens, Wilton E. Hall Jr. and William A. Miles Jr., probably won't trigger that same kind of reaction, although it's undeniably dark and hard to watch in spots near the end.
And both adaptations, of course, are set in the same bleak world that Orwell created in his 1949 novel.
Oceania "is a very dangerous world," said Pereira, and nobody knows that better than Winston, whose efforts to think for himself lead inevitably to the terrors of Room 101 and the horrifying betrayal that gives the ending of "1984" its shattering power.
For the residents of Oceania, "their reality has been stripped of any kind of sensual pleasure or any kind of joy," Helman said, and her cast members have had to dig deep; one of her duties as director, she said, has been "getting young actors to really push themselves. ... I'm really proud of the work that the students are doing."
Those students have bought into the notion that "1984" has something vital to say about our times, even nearly seven decades after the book's original publication. And they hope that gets across to audiences.
Said Robertson: "I hope we can bring a sense of urgency to the stage."