If George Orwell, also known as Eric Blair, were to read this commentary, he’d be on the hunt for clichés, overused phrases, and dull metaphors. His love for precise language, and the clarity of thinking it both reflects and requires, is one of the first things we learn about him in Northern Stage’s world premiere, Orwell in America. Oh, and that he is also searching for a wife.
In real life, George Orwell wrote the provocative novel Animal Farm. In this play, written by Joe Sutton and directed by Peter Hackett, Sutton imagines Orwell on an author tour in the mid-1940s United States to promote the book that had captivated his readers for its anti-communist stance. Much of the play is a battle between Orwell, who wants to use his celebrity to lecture his audience about the need for socialism, and Carlotta, the publicist, who fears the audience’s reaction to his leftist politics. Carlotta also wants to sell books, and to that end, tries with good humor and persistence to package her author. And Orwell, who can’t seem to grasp the simple notion that a speaker must know his listeners, seems to want Carlotta.
The first act throws both the political and the personal tensions into the air for the audience to inhale. The second act turns to other interesting questions, as Carlotta tries along with the rest of us to dissect Orwell’s motivation. In pondering what she sees as Orwell’s obsession with social justice and the “have-nots,” she asks, “Why does one person care and another doesn’t?” If Orwell cares so much, why his impatience, maybe even contempt, for the audience he is trying to persuade? What of the irony that the author of a book about totalitarianism can’t stomach being challenged about his beliefs?
While it is in fact a different era, the gender politics can’t be ignored. Orwell “wants” Carlotta but has his doubts about her being his publicist because her name isn’t Carl. He has trouble seeing her as his intellectual equal, and she accuses him of not hearing her. His need to enlighten her might be the modern dictionary definition of “mansplaining.”
I won’t steal from every other review of this play that has said that Dartmouth’s Jamie Horton was born to play this role, except to agree unreservedly. Allison Jean White is a patient and probing Carlotta who holds her corner of the stage against the frequent barrage from Horton’s Orwell. The other cast member, seventh-grader Trevor Siegel, delivers groceries and his lines admirably.
It is not often that one can see a world premiere of an inventive play without leaving the Upper Valley, which would be reason enough to leave your armchair. On its website, Northern Stage provides a quick refresher on both Orwell and the differences between socialism, communism, and capitalism that might make for useful viewing before the show. Orwell in America will be running for another week at Northern Stage with its last performance on March 29. The box office can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 802-296-7000.