Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning novel The Giver has become a staple of middle school reading lists across the country since its release in 1993. The story of a utopian society who has eliminated freedom of choice and memories of the past for happiness and “sameness” and the 12-year-old boy who confronts the deeper meanings of this forces readers to examine issues of how far government control should go and what do we give up when we lose choice. The Kentwood Players have produced a satisfying production of the very pedestrian adaptation of Lowry’s novel by Eric Coble.
The play opens on 12-year-old Jonas (played on the night reviewed by Jack Heath, who alternates with Elliott Plunkett), who lives with his assigned mother, father and little sister, worrying about what job he will receive in the annual “Ceremony of the Twelve.” His mother and father (Shawn Plunkett and Jenny Boone) assure him the elders will choose an occupation that suits him and he and his friends Asher and Fiona (Plunkett on the night reviewed and Lily Repp) wait anxiously with him for the announcement. The ceremony reveals that Jonas has been chosen to be the “Receiver of Memories,” a position that requires him to receive memories of everything the society has forgotten from the former Receiver, now called the Giver (Gavin Glynn). During this process, the Giver reveals all sorts of things to Jonas – what colors look like, what snow feels like, the different animals of the world, as well as more painful memories – a sunburn at first, and then war and famine. It is also revealed that there was a previous Receiver of Memories, Rosemary (Allison Cunningham), who had failed in her position, which left the community reeling from receiving the memories she had been given. As Jonas comes to understand both the responsibility and the burden this information is, he confronts the Giver about the fairness of both retaining the good memories for himself as well as suffering the bad alone and the two concoct a plan to change their “utopian” world.
Coble’s adaptation hews very close to the book which creates issues in pacing as many scenes are mere minutes in length and transitions are frequent. This provides a stumbling block for small spaces as the action jumps from one scene to another in the same space. However the company is able to somehow make most transitions as seamless as possible thanks to Harold Dershimer’s deft direction.
Young Heath as Jonas has the challenge of carrying the play and he does so wonderfully. His scenes with Glynn as the Giver are often heavy with emotion and the audience feels for both Glynn and Heath. Shawn Punkett and Boone as the parents and Kaya McLean as Jonas’s younger sister Lily, ably help move the action along, as do Cunningham and the rest of the cast.
The star of this production is Bruce Starrett and Dershimer’s set design and Starrett’s lighting and sound design. Such as small stage could prove to be a burden but they figure out how to manage scene changes effectively. But the brilliance of the set design is they have figured out how to add the colors Jonas starts to see to a grey background, and how to use set walls as ways to project images of the memories being given to Jonas. This helps the audience attain a greater sense of understanding and elevates this production beyond mere community theatre.
Photo Credit – Gloria Plunkett