Based on the book by Lois Lowery
Adapted for the stage by Eric Coble
Directed by Keith McGill
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2023 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The Giver is one of the most notable young adult novels ever published. Winner of the 1994 Newberry Medal, included in numerous core curricula ever since, and adapted into a film starring Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. Perhaps most crucially, it is often challenged in attempts to ban it from school libraries. It must be valuable if they want to keep you from reading it.
Given the story, the act of challenging the book is itself an ironic reinforcement of the repressive yet endlessly cheerful and self-righteous futuristic society depicted in The Giver. Lifelong vocations are assigned by the community at age 12 and there are not many options if you are unhappy with the choice. For Jonas (Flynn Harris) the crucial moment proves even more life-changing because he is selected to be the Receiver of Memory, the most important assignment in the community. He is to spend all of his days being trained by The Giver of Memory (Barrett Cooper), an older man reading to pass on the great responsibility of being the repository of the collective memory of all of the world.
It is a society without war and pain, but also with limited aspects of any feelings, dedicated to a stifling “Sameness”. The play opens with Jonas’ family at dinner and his Father (Brandon Meeks) asking each member to share a feeling they experienced that day; tidily explained and then shelved away. The Father’s occupation is Nurturer, caring for infants in what remains a nontraditional role for men, but Lowery is teasing us with the illusion of real progress while rendering a thoroughly dystopian futuristic society.
The Giver holds the truth of the culture, the harsh realities of past war and suffering and the cold reveal of what it means to be “released” from your assigned role, and as Jonas learns more and more his reaction comes to seem inevitable.
This is one of the bolder choices for Stage One Family Theatre, sober and bleak in tone and trafficking in dark themes, it refuses to be patronizing in how it communicates a tough narrative. There is humor, particularly in the family scenes, but it is subtle and satirical in a way that may be missed by younger audiences but which stick a solid landing for anyone old enough to remember idealized sitcom reruns originating from the 1950s.
Tom Tutino’s scenic design consists primarily of epic bookshelves that make up The Giver’s space, flat and gray at the beginning; they are a canvas for the emerging colors in Lindsay Krupski’s slow and careful lighting transitions. I would imagine being asked to dress the cast in “Sameness” is not any customer’s dream, but Terry Schwab manages to give each character some individual detail in trim and texture without subverting that mission.
Director Keith McGill shapes the story with good pace, drawing effective performances from the entire cast, especially Brandon Meek’s sly parody of ideal parenting, but the play ultimately belongs to Barrett Cooper and Flynn Harris. The relationship between them is everything, as Jason becomes more and more enlightened and his new fuller range of feelings pulls them closer together. Cooper is a steady, authoritative presence but also exposes the dishonesty of the Father’s role by showing what true nurturing is all about, while Harris balances earnest naivete against the desperate nature of his new mission. Cast against the distance of his family dynamic, the intimacy and tenderness with The Giver illustrates all we risk in prioritizing order and efficiency over genuine human expression and all of the mess that comes with it.
So this is not Dragons Love Tacos (which was terrific), but The Giver points out the range available within theatre for children. It is an intelligent and provocative production that proves every bit as edifying for adults as for the children. While I value the silly fun of some of the other Stage One offerings, this is a play that will trigger meaningful conversations among all members of the family.
Featuring J. Barrett Cooper, Rita Hight, Brandi LaShay, Brandon Meeks
Blue Cast: Holden Beckett, Flynn Harris, Sophia Hyde, Kyah Young (reviewed here)
Red Cast: Nadia Brooks, Finnigan Broyles, Kate Doran, Jeremiah Stephens
January 28, February 4 & 11 @ 2:00 pm & 5:00 pm
*Sensory Friendly performance February 4 at 5pm
StageOne Family Theatre
Kentucky Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of Artists Talk with LVA on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.