Quill’s Production of Huxley Novel is Brave but Occasionally Uneven

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    Most likely, you have read (or will read) Brave New World in high school. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel explores a futuristic vision of a world where personal freedom is dead and morality – by today’s standards – is taboo.

    Adapting such a masterpiece for the stage is ambitious, but Quill Theatre’s current production, written by David Rogers, captures the essence of the novel. Brave New World is Quill’s entry into this year’s Acts of Faith Festival, which features near twenty productions that show the influences of spiritual values, choices, and faith. Richmond’s annual festival is said to be the largest of its kind in the U.S

    Its themes are appropriate to a culture today that’s re-evaluating its values, and in that respect, Brave New World is the perfect play for these unsettling times.

    In the World State, people take Soma pills to be happy (other emotions are discouraged). Babies are born in hatcheries, and the word “mother” is considered a vulgarity. In the society’s caste system, some people, Epsilons, are bred specifically for menial labor. “Ford” is used in place of “Lord,” a nod to assembly-line champion Henry Ford, and years are measured in A.F., or After Ford.

    “Every one works for every one else” is a motto drilled into citizens’ heads.

    In the dystopian future, no one is allowed to think or be anything that’s not pre-programmed. But what happens when citizens began to feel twinges of emotion outside the norm? What happens when they don’t think of the collective society, but of themselves and their desires?

    Bernard (Michael Oppenheimer) is finding out by foregoing his Soma. In lieu of a Soma holiday, he and friend Lenina (Alex Wiles) opt to visit an outside community called Malpais, where for the first time they see life outside their World State – with sickness, religious rituals and aging. There, they meet two “savages,” Linda (Jacqueline Jones), originally from the World State, and her natural-born son, John (Caleb Wade), who quotes Shakespeare to express his feelings. When Bernard and Lenina return home, bringing Linda and John along, things go downhill.

    Quill’s production features strong leads in Oppenheimer, Wiles, and Wade, and Wade’s final scene is especially affecting. But with those three excellent performances is an uneven supporting cast, and the multiple roles they play can be confusing at times.

    Dialogue-heavy in parts, the play could have gotten tedious, but director Maggie Roop does a good job keeping the tempo steady. However, a few group scenes just don’t work, turning farcical instead of chilling.

    Mary Sader’s bleak, industrial set perfectly evokes the sterility of the civilization, but Xiaolin Lan’s costume designs are occasionally distracting (what’s with the shoulder pads?) in a culture that’s supposed to value uniformity. Kudos to Maja E. White for interesting lighting design, transforming the one set into a variety of locations.

    Brave New World is a wide-eyed look at a tomorrow that might be getting uncomfortably closer. Anyone who’s read the book – or getting ready to in school – might benefit from thinking about how it might parallel certain aspects of society today.

    The production runs through February 17 at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. For showtimes and tickets, click here.