If it weren't for America, British author Aldous Huxley's novel "Brave New World" likely would have been a different book.
Appalled by what he saw as our youth-obsessed culture, sexual promiscuity and commercialized happiness, Huxley paired these attributes with the principles of carmaker Henry Ford to craft the futuristic society of "Brave New World." The result was a dystopian work that criticized consumerist culture, groupthink and anti-intellectualism.
Starting this weekend, Quill Theatre and the Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen's theatrical version of the novel takes the stage in Henrico. Like the book, the play tells the story of a society that has become docile through genetic engineering, drugs, easy sex and overreliance on technology. Procreation outside of a test tube is considered obscene, and any anxiety or bad feeling is treated with a drug.
"It is a story of a false utopia … where humans are living in a controlled environment based on meeting their most instinctual desires," says Maggie Roop, the show's director. "Everyone is essentially conditioned and brainwashed."
In this telling, two members of civilization, Bernard and Lenina, visit an outsider community that wouldn't go along with society's new order. When Bernard and Lenina bring two members of this community back to civilization, things quickly begin to unravel.
Local actor Michael Oppenheimer says one of Huxley's points is that too much convenience pulls us away from the very challenges that make us human. Much of Huxley's commentary, he says, is applicable today.
"It's crazy, because Aldous Huxley wrote it in the '30s, and it feels like he's writing it from our current society," says Oppenheimer, who plays Bernard in the show. "It makes me think that this is something that will be inherent to American society for quite some time."
Oppenheimer's character is a bit of an outsider, questioning elements of his society and abstaining from drugs and group activities.
"He has this curiosity, but he doesn't know what to call it," he says. "He just finds himself distancing himself from society."
Actress Alex Wiles portrays Lenina, a middle-class technician who's known for her beauty and many suitors. Wiles says the character differs from her usual roles.
"She doesn't necessarily behave the way you'd expect an ingénue to behave. In this particular society, promiscuity is the norm," Wiles says. "There are other characters who are questioning the society they're living in, [and] she perhaps shares that curiosity, but has none of the ability to articulate that."
In adapting a dystopian work, Wiles says it reminds her of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," which is set in a fictional United States under a totalitarian theocracy. While the play doesn't make a point of it, Wiles says her character makes some thought-provoking choices in light of the ongoing #metoo movement.
"There are moments for me as Lenina where I am both sort of a victim and an aggressor in that way, so that's been really interesting," Wiles says.
For Roop, the parallels between "Brave New World" and today's society are abundant, especially our obsession with social media and the rise of fake news and partisan media.
"We're living in a world right now where we are feeding off information that … isn't necessarily accurate, and we are creatures who self-medicate or fall into routines of rewarding ourselves in unhealthy ways," she says. "Brave New World" is "not too far a cry from where some of us are existing in our modern world." S
Quill Theatre and the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen's "Brave New World" plays Feb. 2-17 at 2880 Mountain Road. For information, visit quilltheatre.org or call 261-2787.