The Wheelock Family Theatre has opened its milestone 25th-anniversary season with one of the riskiest and most challenging productions in its history: ''Lord of the Flies," based on the dark and disturbing 1954 novel by William Golding. But as cofounder/producer Susan Kosoff said at Friday's celebratory opening night (which included a film honoring the company's distinguished accomplishments), it is a play that ''resonates so deeply in the world we live in today. It challenges us and our audience." Indeed.
The themes of ''Lord of the Flies" are, in fact, as timely as ever. Golding's powerful story of a group of British schoolboys stranded and left to their own devices on a tropical island is a searing indictment of the inner beastliness in all of us. At the outset, there is the promise of civility. As elected leader Ralph proclaims, ''We're all one gang and this is our island," the boys explore a kind of organized democracy. A conch shell represents a sense of order and authority.
Quickly, however, a splinter group of boys decides it would rather be warriors and hunters, scouring the island for wild beasts. Brute force becomes the boys' game, and two camps evolve -- as one boy declares, it is ''us" and ''them." Bullying, prejudice, betrayal, and mindless, bloodthirsty violence indicative of gang mentality ensue as the fragile society breaks down.
Unfortunately, Nigel Williams's theatrical adaptation is confusing, trading cohesion for feral intensity. There's too little talk and too much unrelenting raw energy. The context -- that these boys have been shipped off by their parents to escape an atomic bomb -- is never clearly laid out, so the drama seems too extreme, unbelievable. Instead of hopelessness and abandonment triggering such anarchy, it looks merely like a grand adventure that's gotten tragically out of hand.
In addition, the play never quite captures the subtle transformation that can turn boys into beasts. Some characters are overdrawn, with little emotional shading. Others are ciphers. Without the interior reflection and insight that the novel provides, they degenerate into annoying children behaving very badly. Provocative ideas and some of the novel's brilliant symbolism get buried under mountains of bluster.
That said, Wheelock's production, directed by Kosoff, is viscerally charged and compelling. Kudos to the 11 brave boys (ranging in age from 11 to 17) who give impressively committed, impassioned performances, which must be grueling emotionally and physically. Jacob Brandt is especially affecting as the asthmatic, bespectacled Piggy, everyone's favorite whipping boy. He brings a slightly nasal petulance to his observations and complaints, making you feel bad for him, yet realize you why everyone finds him so easy to pick on. The talented Andrew Barbato makes the arrogantly abusive and power-hungry Jack completely insufferable, while Jacob Liberman shows the most range as Ralph, who goes from confident leader to sobbing, near-hysterical victim.
Danila Korogodsky's set design is fabulous, a stark vista of irregularly angled and curved platforms that suggest the hills and dunes of the island leading to a black sand beach at stage's edge. As the boys stand on the shore looking out to the endless sea, they look right into our eyes.