Lord of the Flies
Adapted by Nigel Williams
Powerful, passionate adaptation breathes new life into classic novel
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|The Lord of the Flies|
Review by Patrick Dyer
There’s been some criticism against William Golding’s classic tale of young boys being stranded on an island and becoming savages; that it’s “dated” now that violence among younger generations has sharply risen and that makes the novel feel less shocking than before. I disagree. I think because of that fact, the novel carries more weight since people – especially children – have experienced violence more and more in the world today. And nowhere is that brought forth with more craft and passion than Steppenwolf’s adaptation, Lord of the Flies.
For those unfamiliar with the original story, Lord of the Flies takes place on a deserted island during an unspecified nuclear war where a group of English choirboys are stranded after a plane crash. The group includes the appointed leader Ralph (Spencer Curnutt), the rebellious Jack (Ty Olwin), the asthma-ridden bespectacled Piggy (Dan Smeriglio), the foreseeing Simon (Lane Flores), and the brooding Roger (Rudy Galvan), among others. At first, they see this uninhabited island as a paradise where they can live the way they’ve always wanted: free of adults. However, paranoia and tensions run high as the boys split into two groups: the diplomatic and reasonable led by Ralph, and the savage and primitive led by Jack. These two groups clash with each other as the fear of never finding their way back home weighs down upon them with disastrous results.
While Golding’s novel has been through several adaptations over the years (some successful, others not so much), Steppenwolf’s interpretation is by far one of the most solid and carefully constructed in recent years. In this version, the boys are played by actors who are at least five to ten years older than their characters’ ages. In the wrong hands, this would come off as a bit awkward, but this actually helps bring out what Golding wanted to address in the novel: how humanity – young or old – has the potential to become evil in extreme situations. This also allows the production to increase the psychological torment and weight of their perilous situations while also giving the island itself a fantastical element.
Playwright Nigel Williams and director Halena Kays bring Golding’s masterpiece quite fluidly to the stage. Kays’ staging is very imaginative: a triple-level set, lots of movement throughout the space, a clever use of projections (most vividly in capturing the boys’ fear of “the Beast”), fluid lighting that evokes both mood and location, and especially the use of sound. Goldings’ script is faithful to the original source material while also providing some surprises (SPOILERS: Jack and Ralph actually develop a brief friendship before their power struggle, Simon goes into a near seizure when he first sees “the Beast,” and Piggy’s inevitable ending is all the more tragic when Roger and the other boys prey on his fear of heights and blindness before pushing him off the ledge of the mountain.) Of course, these changes wouldn’t be as effective without a strong ensemble to bring them to life, and fortunately Kays and her team have assembled a marvelous cast.
The best re-imaginings of Lord of the Flies can only work if the boys themselves have a strong sense of community, and it’s clear that these fine actors have developed just that, making their story even more powerful when that community is broken. Curnutt is a strong leader but effectively captures Ralph’s vulnerability and doubts. Olwin is brutal and even chilling as Jack becomes more and more savage, but he also plays up the childlike joy in the opening scenes, giving Jack a touch more humanity than in other versions of the story. Smeriglio balances the vulnerability and intellect that Piggy has, providing the production’s most intense moment: his infamous death scene. Galvan is brooding and even frightening at times as Roger, which makes sense seeing how he’s a near-psychopath. Flores’ shining moment as Simon is when he confronts what he thinks is “the Beast,” and his tragic end is all the more effective because of it. The rest of the boys help bring the passion and fear out even further as they descend further and further into barbarism.
Overall, this is one of the most fluid transitions from the page to the stage that I’ve seen in quite a long time, and so much of that comes through in how seriously Williams, Kays, and the cast and crew treat this classic tale. This is obviously a story that needed to be told, and it’s told wonderfully at the Steppenwolf. Though intended mostly for younger audiences (Steppenwolf recommends ages 12 and up), the play never shies away from the brutality while still respecting the audiences’ intellect and keeping the story fresh for newcomers. As long as humanity struggles with morality in desperate times, Lord of the Flies will remain a poignant and cautionary tale about why we need more Ralphs and less Jacks.
Special note: actors use the aisles throughout the performance and carry spears with them, so please make sure to keep the aisles clear.
Lord of the Flies continues through November 10th at Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes, NO intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
William Burke (Bill), Spencer Curnutt (Ralph), Lane Flores (Simon), Rudy Galvan (Roger), Ryan Heindl (Sam), Cale Manning (Perceval), Brendan Meyer (Henry), Lance Newton (Maurice), Ty Olwin (Jack), Kevin Quinn (Johnny), Adam Shalzi (Eric), Dan Smeriglio (Piggy)
behind the scenes
Nigel Williams (adaptor), Halena Kays (director), Lizzie Bracken (sets), Alison Siple (costumes), J.R. Lederle (lighting), Mike Tutaj (sound & projections), Leah Urzendowski (choreography), Ryan Bourque (fight choreography), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Erica Daniels (casting), Laura D. Glenn (stage manager), Michael Brosilow (photos)