Imagine living in a colorless world where there is no passion, no restlessness, no creativity. As a person who feels her emotions, often in their extremes, I would never survive. It is the sensory input, the variety, the reactionary feedback that inspires us to re-invent our future to accommodate change. But, what if there was no diversity, and we were fiercely prohibited from even thinking about innovation? What if we were, for all eternity, mandated to “sameness”? Would we rebel? Would we comply for the sake of tradition?
These are the questions Lois Lowry poses in her novel “The Giver”, which has been adapted for the stage by Dramatic Publishing Company. This chilling tale of a suppressed community has been given life by the Sioux Empire Community Theatre, whose actors are ready to mesmerize you on the stage of the Anne Zabel Theatre at the Orpheum.
We are introduced to this nameless community by two identical announcers who pace like sentinels as they watch their human charges, declaring rules in a tin-can tandem that sent a tingle up my spine. They inspired thoughts of Mr. Spock and his logical monotone; Siri, as she tells me to take the next exit; even Austin Powers’ Fembots, but without the sex appeal. Karrisa Kummer and Elaina Wegleitner never broke character and I found myself unable to look them in the eye as they passed.
We enter the story as Jonas, a boy of eleven who has no last name, paces anxiously, stressing about the upcoming ceremony where he will give up his childhood and be assigned a lifelong vocation. Outside of his home he is only referred to as “Number Nineteen” of “The Elevens”. Although they have been assimilated into the culture, Jonas’ family displays a contrasting bit of empathy, but insists that he do as all have done before him. He and his friends brood over what assignments they will receive, as not all are desirable.
Fast forward to the “Ceremony of Twelves”, where Jonas’ friends are given ordinary jobs, but Jonas is assigned the title of Receiver of Memories. This is a revered position that he does not understand, and it’s profound responsibility has the potential to isolate him from life, as he has known it.
Jonas is soon introduced to The Giver, a brooding man who seems vexed with the idea of transmitting all of the world’s memories into Jonas. You see, Jonas will be the Library of Alexandria, in human form. Throughout the show I was hypnotized by Jay Wickre as The Giver. He portrayed true empathy and despair through his movements and facial expressions, but, above all, I was transfixed by his eyes. They were piercing and emotive and I couldn’t look away.
As Jonas receives memory after memory, he becomes overwhelmed. He begins to see the community in a new light; and not a good one. His family and friends don’t understand what he is going through, and he feels support only from The Giver. He questions why the “sameness” is necessary, and is told that it is for the good of the people. There is a day, a scale-tipping day, when Jonas receives a shocking revelation about his family, and he can no longer accept the status quo. This twelve-year-old boy must now make a choice that could put him on a perilous new path through the unknown.
This production kept me on the edge of my seat all evening. Director Andy Heller clearly had the creative vision to assemble a great cast and keep them focused. What really stood out for me was the talent of the children. Young Robert Baker, as Jonas, had reams of lines to memorize and he delivered them all with just the right amount of emotion. I noticed that, the first time he laughed in character, he chose a cackling tone that clearly demonstrated his character’s lack of experience with joy. Jonas did not know how to laugh. Noah Bunger was moving as Asher, clearly displaying his angst about life as a “Twelve”. Olivia Gordon’s Fiona infused her character with a bit more contentment than the others. It made sense for a young girl who is okay with her world and satisfied with her job. Cast as little sister Lilly, Cassidy Jennings was adorable in braids and bows, carrying around a stuffed elephant that her character would never have seen in real life. She successfully portrayed the rebellious nature of a younger child, who is sometimes grumpy, regardless of what her elders say. Alex Vasquez and Jessica Tebben, who played Jonas’ parents, allowed their characters to display some emotion and empathy for their children. It showed an adherence to the rules in public, but some parental love within the home. Cheryl Matthews was pompous, forceful and condescending as the Chief Elder. It was spot on; she scared me. Last, but not least was Johanna Merrill as Rosemary, whose story we learn mostly through dialogue. We don’t see much of her, but, when we do, the sorrow is raw on her face.
The Zabel Theatre was arranged with the stage on one end, set pieces on the floor, and a U-shaped audience surrounding it. It was easy to see the action from any seat in the house. Sound effects successfully brought in a sensory effect, and a screen on the stage allowed us to enter Jonas’ mind when he was thinking.
This production of “The Giver” clearly stayed true to the themes in the book. I did not know what to expect, as I have never read it, but this cast drew me in and didn’t let go. The show runs the next two weekends and can be seen at a very reasonable price. With a running time of just over an hour and no intermission, I would recommend it for anyone over the age of ten. I think younger kids might struggle with the concept and get fidgety. See the show, then go get coffee and dessert and talk about it!
The Giver runs March 10 – 20, 2016. Thurs., Fri. & Sat. at 7 p.m. and Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m.