Southern Theater's Animal Farm presents a barnyard of lessons

When animals attack: Mr. Jones (Jon Cole) fights a barnyard coup

When animals attack: Mr. Jones (Jon Cole) fights a barnyard coup

George Orwell's Animal Farm, like The Great Gatsby, tends to be prescribed to high school students for worthy reasons: Both go down relatively easily, then unfold with the sorts of big ideas that lend themselves nicely to assigning the three-page paper. The problem is that we grow up and tend to think we're done with them, when in fact their smooth surfaces and spiky hidden barbs take on new forms with the seasoning of another decade or two.

Elevator Repair Service's production of Gatz at the Walker two years ago brought Fitzgerald's text into a strange and frequently wonderful new life. Now Jon Ferguson directs Ian Woolridge's adaptation of Orwell, and the result is both the story we know and something more: a seesaw ride between idealism and cynicism, and between giddy freedom and worn-down despair.

At first on the farm, things are less than ideal. Mr. Jones (Jon Cole), who owns the place, is on a seemingly endless bender and prone to exploring ill-advised techniques in animal husbandry (such as not feeding the beasts). But a bright note shines through when the swine Old Major (Markell Kiefer, perched in a wheelbarrow and intoning in a husky, oddly endearing pig-speak) delivers what amounts to a valediction, laying out for the farmyard a vision of equality, purpose, and fulfillment—once they get rid of those pesky human overlords who bogart all the good stuff while the animals slave away.

Old Major's speech fills the animals with ebullient hope, and we're reminded that Orwell never intended his novel as a criticism of Marxist philosophy, but rather as a satirical repudiation of the way in which societies such as Stalin's Soviet Union twisted ideals into the same old totalitarianism (there's your three-page paper in a nutshell). And soon enough, the sweetness of the early going starts to fade away.

After the animals oust Jones and take over the joint, the director grasps hold of the increasingly dark tone of the work, in which the only ones laughing are the pigs who take control and gradually erode the rights and liberties of their ostensible brethren. Leading the charge is Napoleon (Dario Tangelson, stripped to the waist and squinting into the distance with a great mix of hypocrisy and a tyrant's self-regard), though his mouthpiece and propagandist Squealer (Kenneth Pierce) lends an assist by keeping the farm off-balance with a torrent of verbal bullshit.

In due course the regime ousts Snowball (John Catron), the idealistic leader of the early days, and grinding totalitarianism is the order of the day (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). Orwell's political message (whether you call it deeply cynical or simply clear-eyed) is intact in this production, and the tone and voice of the original story come across with depth and heart.

The pulse of this play beats between Boxer the Work Horse (Christiana Clark) and Benjamin the Donkey (Jason Ballweber). Ballweber's character is at first an enigma, staring at Napoleon with empty eyes, holding the flag he's given but not waving it. Increasingly he lets on that he sees the hollow charade around him for what it is, but that he's all too aware that opposition, or even caring, would get him nowhere. Clark is powerful throughout, breathily physical as the horse who works himself to death for the revolution, never giving up belief, always credulous in those who say they know what's best for him.

Animal Farm might have been written for a specific moment, but it's also about us: our need for leaders, our fear-driven minds, our capacity to exploit one another, and, yes, our moments when we try to see a way out of it all. This show isn't comfortable to watch, by any means, but life out here in the farmyard is rarely designed for our ease and contentment.