Constable: For teenage cast, Orwell's '1984' resonates onstage and off
It's spring, the weather is finally warming up and many high schools are performing bright, cheery, uplifting theater productions that leave parents smiling.
Last spring, Rolling Meadows High School theater director Britnee Ruscitti Kenyon, who acknowledges that her first name practically begs for a smiley face to dot the i, directed talented teenagers in "The Craving," a zombie-inspired comedy. "It was superfun and really high-energy," Kenyon says.
This spring, Kenyon and her RMHS actors are going in a different direction.
"If I'm going to do this play, now is the time," Kenyon says about her decision to tackle the bleak, dystopian world of George Orwell's novel, "1984," adapted for the stage. The director, who turned 30 on Friday, says the play's messages about totalitarianism, torture, "thoughtcrimes" and "Newspeak," with "Big Brother" keeping track of everything people do, say and think strikes a chord in today's world.
"Throughout our first couple of weeks, we just sat around the table, read the play and talked," Kenyon says.
"I feel it's such an important show to take on. I think it gives me an outlet for my frustrations with the things that are going on," says Maddie Nesbitt, 17, a senior from Arlington Heights, who participated in a recent protest about gun violence and who plays Julia, a Party member with a rebellious streak. "Having a place to channel that energy is helpful."
Her male counterpart and romantic interest, Winston, played by fellow junior Ethan Check, 17, from Rolling Meadows, says the impact of "1984" continues off the stage. "It's hard not to find a way to bring it into your life," Check says. "There are so many ways to interpret the play."
The scene where Winston's head is in a cage and his torturers are threatening to release hungry rats probably will be tough for his grandma from Iowa to watch, but it's merely a reminder of real-life atrocities happening around the globe, Check says.
Party slogans of "War is peace," "Freedom is slavery" and "Ignorance is strength" dominate the stage. To create the mood, technical director and set designer Paul Dombrowski, who teaches art in Palatine Township Elementary District 15 and also works on theater productions at Harper College in Palatine, scoured the news for dark and foreboding headlines that matched that mood.
"It took me 45 minutes," Dombrowski says of his collection of international headlines that speak of a gay purge, censorship, torture, raids, wars, refugees, corruption, hacking, "fake news," missile strikes, families ripped apart and a "people are winning" affirmation.
All the workers are played by females, and all the guards are male. The character Goldstein, leader of the Brotherhood resistance, is written for a man, but Rolling Meadows flipped that by having junior Tess Cruz play the role. "I think about this play constantly. I can relate to this play," says Cruz, 17, a junior from Rolling Meadow. News about Facebook sharing personal information, hackings by Russians and others, and the technology that knows where we go, what we buy and what we look for on the internet mirrors some details from the play.
"Legitimately, we are being watched all the time. The world they live in in the play isn't too far off from the life we are living now," Cruz says. "It also makes you grateful that it's not like that -- yet. It makes you grateful we have freedoms."
Social justice theater forces the audience to think.
"I don't think there has been as much excitement for a play as this one," says Kenyon, who grew up in Lisle and acted in plays at Lisle High School before finding her love for directing at Illinois Wesleyan University.
"It wasn't just my opportunity to do social justice theater," Kenyon says of the "1984" production. "It was the chance to do an intellectually stimulating political piece."
Kenyon, who is married to Jeff Award-winning actor Shane Kenyon, who recently appeared in an episode of TV's "Chicago Med," was accepted into a social justice theater grad school program this summer at New York University. She says theater has a power.
"You can process through a lot of emotions," Kenyon says of the "1984" production. "I am so happy that I chose this show. It's a cathartic experience for us. We realize how much of this play hits close to home. I think this play is really important to start a conversation."