The Giver | Stage review
Adventure Stage Chicago takes on The Giver, Newbery Award-winner Lois Lowry’s widely embraced yet often controversial book about the power of emotions and the dangers of conformity. Adapted by Eric Coble and directed by ASC ensemble member Brian Bell, the play looks closely at what appears to be a Utopian futuristic society, as seen through the eyes of Jonas, a boy who is about to experience a rite of passage known as the Ceremony of Twelve.
At the start of the play, geared toward kids ages 9 and up, Jonas's world is dominated by "sameness," which has helped his society eradicate pain, war and starvation. Color, love and free will, however, are the apparent cost of such safety. Like the children’s book it’s based on, we initially find Jonas living a harmonious life of security, predictability and equality as he sits down each night with his family to discuss the events of their day.
But things change suddenly when the hero, aptly played by a never too silly or overwrought Aaron Lawson, receives his assigned vocation at the Ceremony of Twelve. Jonas is awarded the very special position of Receiver of Memory, a challenging but highly honorable job that requires him to receive and store the community’s memories—both good and bad—so that the elders can draw on the wisdom of his "experience" in times of crisis.
Jonas begins meeting with the Giver, played by the patience- and wisdom-exuding John Ruhaak. As the retiring Receiver, the Giver begins telepathically unloading some of his memories on Jonas. The boy quickly learns that while this historic arrangement spares society from pain and anguish, it also mandates that everyone—his family and most trusted friends included—perpetuate a life of lies. The boy shifts awkwardly back and forth between the serene facade of his home life and the horrors and joys he discovers as Receiver, with the spatial and emotional transitions portrayed seamlessly on stage via the simple but highly versatile layered set.
Throughout the story, Jonas forms a bond with Gabe, a colicky baby his father has brought home from the Nurturing Center where he works. The family hopes the extra attention will help rehabilitate the child so he won’t have to be "released," which Jonas's newly acquired memories reveal is a euphemism for murder. The baby, played by a papier mâché puppet cleverly designed for the actors' to stealthily animate with their hands, takes a shine to Jonas and on several occasions, accidentally receives Jonas's memories. To save Gabe from certain death, the Giver conspires to help Jonas escape the community with the baby and release all the memories onto society.
Under Bell’s direction, Coble's gripping adaptation doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to painting Jonas's world as anything short of the totalitarian nightmare of Lowry's book. While some of the grade schoolers in attendance on opening-night winced during a particularly disturbing lethal injection scene, the post-play discussion suggested that the gut-wrenching vignette sparked a worthwhile amount of critical thinking in the young audience. Like the book, the story's end leaves more sophisticated audience members in an ambiguous state of limbo, not knowing whether Jonas and the baby were saved or if they died amid a hypothermic hallucination. Although the play may not be appropriate for more sensitive young viewers, Adventure Stage Chicago's thoughtful, well executed production raises valuable discussion points about the importance of human emotion, and moreover, the timeless struggle to balance freedom and security.
The Giver runs through April 26. Visit adventurestage.org for tickets and more information.