When you are a kid, most choices are made for you. Some authority figure, a parent or a teacher, generally dictates the details of your day, from what you will eat to when you go to sleep. This is considered, by and large, good parenting. As we grow older, more choices become available to us. This is considered growing up. But what if all our choices were made for us? What if we never got to make mistakes? Or learn from painful consequences?
These questions are imaginatively, sensitively, and deftly explored in Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production, The Giver, a play by Eric Coble based on the Newbery Award-winning book by Lois Lowry. A beautiful mélange of technical elegance and haunting performances, The Giver succeeds as a deceptively simple science-fiction tale that grows more complex, more compelling and more disturbing as it unfolds.
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Directed by LCT education director Jeremy Kisling, the story centers on Jonas (Robert Shyrock), a boy living in a future utopia where all lives are governed by strict rules of the Community. The citizens' lives are highly regulated — marriages are arranged, families are given a two-children limit, and 12-year-old kids are assigned the jobs that they will have for the rest of their lives — but everyone seems pretty happy.
The play opens benevolently enough. A family gathers around a table, sharing a meal. With their impeccable manners, generally cheery disposition, and open sharing of thoughts and feelings, they seem like the perfect family, a kind of politically correct Ozzy and Harriet of the future.
But when 12-year-old Jonas is appointed to a unique and mysterious work assignment as the Receiver of Memories, a more sinister truth about the Community emerges.
In this job, Jonas will inherit from the previous Receiver, an old, wizened man whom Jonas calls the Giver (Lew Bowling), all of the memories that existed in the world before the Community converted to Sameness.
In these scenes of apprenticeship and training, Shyrock and Bowling display a masterful range of emotion and characterization. Shyrock is captivating in his discoveries. Inheriting pleasurable memories, including snow, sunshine and color, which don't exist within the Community, Shyrock's responses are as intoxicating and tactile as the memories are powerful. So too are his initiations into painful memories — war, hunger, loss, physical pain.
Bowling brings a sense of heavy emotional burden to his role as the young boy's mentor. He alone carries all of the memories of the world — from the sublime to the tragic — and Bowling's character is plagued with loneliness and suffering as a result. From his performance, we understand that the Giver undertakes his training of Jonas with a sense of regretful responsibility, but he is comforted to finally have someone with whom to share the secrets of his terrible knowledge.
Those secrets include startling truths about the rules of the Community, including the reality of Release, a frequently used term that refers to someone being peacefully sent away from the group. In truth, it refers to pre-prescribed death by lethal injection. Even Jonas' father (Matthew Ancarrow), who is a Nurturer in charge of infants, routinely "releases" infants who do not fit into the Community. His own dear friend, Fiona (Susan Smoots), routinely "releases" the elderly in her new job as caretaker of the old. These supporting characters are spooky in their innocent compliance of the norm, which makes Jonas' discoveries even more frightening.
The show is rich with superior performances, but it deserves praise for its technical achievements as well. The audience shares Jonas' inherited memories via multimedia projection screens, some hanging unused above the set, rectangular and ominous, reminiscent of the blank minds of the Community. Kirsten Aurelius' colorless costume design punctuates the pervasive utilitarian homogeny of the Community, except for the brilliant red robes of Jonas and the Giver, who can see (and hear) "beyond."
Routinely appearing on adolescent-reading lists and banned-books lists alike, The Giver is most appropriate for older children as a means to address the importance of differences, how to come to terms with pain and loss, and why it is dangerous to shut off your feelings. A discussion about government, community and personal freedom is not a far leap for the adolescent viewer. Even young children might benefit from learning about the significance of making choices. A gorgeously wrought tale, it also is a useful reminder to parents that shielding children from disappointments and heartache might not yield the most capable human beings, let alone happy, healthy ones.