Actress Jackie Bleich as Julia and actor Derek Powell as Winston commiserate as a telescreen image of Big Brother flickers above them in a scene from the CNY Playhouse production of “1984” running through Aug. 19, at the ShoppingTown Mall. (Amelia Beamish Photo)
By Russ Tarby
I understand the words,” said Julia, the new gal at the Ministry of Truth, “But I don’t understand the why.”
Audience members who attend CNY Playhouse’s current production of “1984,” however, well understand why this play is so important at this time. Never before in history have so many Americans been so thoroughly brainwashed by a charismatic leader.
In “1984,” government opponents are accused of “thoughtcrimes.” In Donald Trump’s America, his opponents are accused of spreading “fake news.”
“1984” is based on the dystopian novel by English author George Orwell, published in 1949. It is set in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance and public manipulation.
Oceania’s population of lower-class proletariats is controlled by a privileged elite of the Inner Party that persecutes individualism and independent thinking as “thoughtcrime.” The tyranny is epitomized by party leader Big Brother who is always watching via video and audio technology.
First-time director Christopher Lupia had his work cut out for him. Orwell depicts a complex political system that takes many pages of confusing dialogue to adequately describe. In Act I, especially, the repetitive dialogue combines with a sad lack of action to allow boredom to rear its ugly head.
Luckily, things pick up in Act II, as duplicity, a thwarted seduction, brutal interrogations and physical and psychological torture pique audience interest.
Lupia cast three outstanding performers who make this production worthwhile.
Derek Powell’s harrowing characterization of the beleaguered idealist Winston Smith will linger in your mind’s eye for days, and Jeremiah Thompson’s turn as the treacherous Inner Party official, O’Brien, will both impress and appall you. And the ever-entertaining Binaifer Dabu nearly steals the show as a proud “Prole” landlady. Dabu draws rare chuckles with her hunchbacked old crone singing songs from the old days before the Thought Police came into power.
Smith’s lover, Julia, played by actress Jackie Bleich, publicly espouses party doctrine as a member of the fanatical Junior Anti-Sex League while secretly harboring anti-Big Brother ideas. Bleich’s Julia has an appropriate deer-in-the-headlights look about her, but the actress plays her a bit too softly and innocently to be believed as a committed counter-revolutionary.
Bleich’s best scene is Julia’s frustrated attempt to entice Winston into bed by replacing her uniform with a dress that displays her well-shaped legs. No wonder Orwell himself described Julia as “a rebel from the waist downwards.”
Thompson’s officious O’Brien is a truly menacing character capable of deceiving, trapping and capturing Winston and Julia. With a partially shaved head, a garish red beard and black leather coats, Thompson’s O’Brien comes off as one of the all-time best bad guys ever seen on the CNY Playhouse stage, a browbeating, barbarous bully.
This show really belongs to Derek Powell, however, as Winston Smith, who toils for the Ministry of Truth changing “Oldspeak” into “Newspeak” – that is, lies – by eradicating persons and events that fail to correspond to Big Brother’s version of reality. In other words, he rewrites history, and once he realizes what he’s doing he nearly goes mad.
After endless weeks and months of torture and sleep-deprivation in the Ministry of Love’s dreaded Room 101, Powell’s bespectacled face clearly communicates his character’s enforced transformation. Near the play’s conclusion, his haunting, tear-glazed eyes, scraggly whiskers and trembling lips capture the look of a man who has been thoroughly broken in body, mind and spirit. And a crazed grin accompanies his inevitable reacceptance of Big Brother.
Supporting cast standouts include David Dean as Symes, another Ministry of Truth rewriter, Leila Dean as Parsons, a hard-edged party factotum, and Amber Bates as a spying child.
“1984,” produced by Kasey Marie Polly, runs at 8 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Aug. 17, 18 and 19, at CNY Playhouse, located near the Macy’s entrance at on the second level of ShoppingTown Mall, in DeWitt. Tickets cost $17 on Thursday and $20 on Friday and Saturday; cnyplayhouse.org; 315-885-8960.
I am a reporter for the Eagle Bulletin and Cazenovia Republican at Eagle News. I report on topics ranging from town and village government, business, news and features. I am a 2014 graduate of the Roy H. Park School of Communications and have a degree in Journalism and a minor in Psychology.