“The Giver” ponders a bleak future
By PAUL CASTANEDA REPORTER CORRESPONDENT
Published: Tuesday, February 9, 2010
What would you be willing to accept in order to lead a life free of crime, poverty, war? What parts of life — about the human experience itself — would you give up, without much of a fight, in order to have an existence where pain and suffering don’t seem to exist?
These questions have been asked, and at times answered in countless books, plays, movies and philosophical treatises … to varying effect. And, in these uncertain times, the questions seem more relevant than ever. In “The Giver,” a play adapted by Eric Coble from the sci –fi book by Lois Lowry, we see a world in which much has been given up by the citizenry in exchange for a perceived safe and sanitized existence. But what at first glance looks almost idyllic slowly is revealed as a nightmarish dystopia.
Both the novel and the adaptation are targeted at an adolescent audience, and as such deal with difficult subjects such as repression, absence of freedoms and totalitarianism with a softer touch than more adult fare (think “A Clockwork Orange,” “Fahrenheit 451”). But, make no mistake, the ugliness of a society where individuality, emotions and other core human traits are subjugated or eliminated by the government in exchange for the seemingly comforting arms of an ever present government are on display.
Jonas is turning 12, and in this society, he will now be assigned his life’s work — as will his friends Fiona and Asher. He discusses these possibilities, as well as numerous other things, during “sharing time” with his family unit, consisting of Mother (a member of the legal profession), Father (a Nurturer) and sister, Fiona—if we can describe what they engage in as actual discussion or conversation.
In this social structure, where all communication seems vacant and distant, real conversation is hard to find. Additionally, anything beyond the slightest allowable displays of emotion or uniqueness are dealt with swiftly and forgiven by way of ritualistic apologies to the offended adult party or the Community itself. And if, as an adult or adolescent, you find yourself experiencing emotion, or sexual stirrings, there’s no need to worry: there’s a readymade pill that will numb those feelings away. Those that don’t conform to the Community’s carefully outlined existence and handy solutions are Released, which Jonas is led to understand is removed from Community to live Elsewhere, an unknown place where non-conformists live out their existence.
As the story unfolds, we discover that Jonas has the ability to See Beyond, including the ability to see color in this world of grey that has been created for the citizenry. As such, he is to apprentice under The Giver to replace him as the Receiver of Memory-keeper of all memories of the past, including everything from love, beauty, sadness, music to much more. The Giver becomes like a surrogate grandfather to Jonas and in learning to trust each other, they formulate a plan to release these memories back onto the citizenry through the escape of Jonas (it seems that if the Receiver is Released or leaves Community, all memories imparted on him are loosed upon the members of the Community). At first hesitant, Jonas becomes convinced of the necessity to escape after being shown the true meaning of being Released and its possible ramifications for an infant his Father has been nurturing at their home.
Mark Koenig, as Jonas, gives a convincing performance as a 12 year old whose eyes are slowly opened to what once was and what really is. With every gained experience from The Giver and each new nugget of knowledge, Koenig believably grows from slightly unique adolescent to brave fighter for all those things that truly define us as human.
Matching him in kind is Adrian LePeltier as The Giver. In turn instructive grandfather, waning caretaker of the library of human memory and shrewd-if anxious-plotter of the reintroduction of all things human to this forcibly bland society, LePeltier wears these many coats in his wistful yet hopeful delivery of the Giver, now not far removed from the end of the road. It is their interplay, the chemistry between Koenig and LePeltier, that really carries the production.
Worth mentioning among the other performers are Avis-Marie Barnes as the Chief Elder; whether onstage or in recorded pieces, Barnes strikes a chilling balance between concerned caretaker and authoritarian leader of the Community. Also noteworthy is Jason Horne as Father, who assumes all elements of his daily existence with the same detached happiness, whether they involve the mundane or the horrific.
The set and lighting, by Vandy Wood and David Upton respectively, create the perfect bleak, colorless, linear world. Coble’s adaptation, although lacking some of the intricacies and meat of the novel, does a commendable job of getting the basic plot and philosophical points into the stage version. Director Gary Cadwaller excels through his choices in staging, blocking and music of sucking us into a world where all is ordered and precise-in the most terrifying of ways.
“The Giver” is bound to inspire more questions than it answers in the adolescents at whom it’s aimed. Hopefully, it will also lead to true conversation and sharing of ideas with the true elders in their lives.