I knew we were in for some harrowing action the moment I saw the set (by Jeff Rowlings): a bare wooden pallet at center stage with two long jumbles of wires hanging from what might as well be meat hooks, leading to a junction box on the upstage wall. A metal rolling door upstage adds to the sense of being in an ad hoc torture chamber set up in an abandoned industrial building. Three vaguely eye-shaped ovals set in frames seem to look down on the scene, symbolic of the ever watchful Big Brother, the unseen dictator of the state of Oceania.
When lights come up, we discover the protagonist, Winston Smith (though it may be odd to describe him as a protagonist, as things only happen to, not because of him), curled in a fetal position, barefoot, surrounded by men (and one woman) in grey suits.
If you've never read George Orwell's novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (and I must confess I never have, possibly because my Catholic high school wasn't interested in undercutting totalitarianism), it was written in the years just after World War II and was intended by Orwell as a satire of Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin. It concerns three massive global states (Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia) locked in a state of perpetual war. Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth, where, ironically, he "rectifies" news stories so they more closely align with the propaganda aims of Big Brother and the Party, while he secretly harbors hatred for the Party and keeps a diary of his thoughts. Betrayed by a man he thought was a member of the Brotherhood, a group devoted to rebellion, Winston is arrested, imprisoned, and the thoughts in his diary are used against him in a brutal program of re-education. Although Smith (portrayed with stunning ferocity by Joseph Patrick O'Malley) is a man devoted to verifiable truth and rational thought ("How can I help but see what is in front of my eyes?"), he is ultimately tortured into acquiescence.
The horror here–for me, at least, and (I suspect) many others in the audience, this being Berkeley and all–comes not only from the indignities to which Winston is subjected, or the electrical shocks he receives at the hands of his torturers, but by the terrifying parallels to our current political environment, where truth has become less of an objective, verifiable reality, and more of a cult of self-delusion and surrender to a sort of "faith" in which truth is whatever one wants (or hopes) it to be. Or, more terrifying, what a single leader decides he wants it to be.
Michael Gene Sullivan has done an excellent job of encapsulating the Orwellian themes into a sprightly (if disquieting) couple of hours of theatre. (Aurora puts the running time at two hours and 15 minutes, but on opening night it wrapped up almost exactly two hours after it began.) His clever structure often has the interrogators acting out the "crimes" of which Winston is accused, as he watches, restrained by the electrical cables attached to his wrists. His main interrogator, however, is a faceless, ominous (thanks to the sonorous talents of Warren David Keith) voice emanating from one of the "screens" looking down on the action. The voice hectors and harangues Winston, imploring him over and over to "be precise." There is no good cop/bad cop routine being run here–it's all bad, all the time.
Under the expert direction of Barbara Damashek, it becomes clear that every other person on stage is, at one point or another, the "bad cop," inflicting the Party's will upon Winston, placing him into such isolation that one can't help but feel for his loneliness in an ultimately futile attempt to maintain his commitment to verifiable truth. Michael Gene Sullivan's adaptation of the novel stands as a beacon to guide those who, in our troubled times, also seek to maintain a hold on 2+2 always equaling 4.
1984 runs through December 10, 2023, at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $20-$65. For tickets and information, please visit www.auroratheatre.org or call 510-843-4822.