For being a group with questionable taste and no income of its own, the young adult (or YA) demographic has achieved uber-dominance over the entertainment industry. Young adults devoured the adventures of Harry Potter on page and on screen, turning destitute single mother J.K. Rowling into a billionaire. Having already bitch-slapped the bestseller list, The Hunger Games is now poised to challenge wizard Harry for the Hollywood throne. Add to the list the execrable yet supremely profitable Twilight books and films, and it’s no wonder that more and more authors and playwrights are catering to the YA set.
Prolific children’s author Lois Lowry now gets her shot to cash in on the YA phenomenon with her novel The Giver. That novel, which has been adapted as a musical, an opera and twice as a play, and is in the process of becoming a film, landed at the Denver Center a few weeks ago in play form. Though it might not catch fire with older audiences, it has everything a young adult could want in a theatrical production. Bully for it. Any show that gets children, tweens and teens into a theatre is a success as far as I’m concerned.
The Giver takes place in a dystopian future where sameness is valued above all. Everyone dresses in shades of grey, and every aspect of life is severely regimented by the government. Though mothers and fathers still raise children, those children are not the product of sloppy, post-dinner-and-a-movie sex but rather are birthed by strangers in birthing centers. Conflict of any kind is avoided at all costs, leading to oddly humorous apologies for even the smallest perceived slights. And perhaps most tellingly, euphemisms abound. No one is killed any longer; they are merely “released.”
At the age of 12, the government, in the form of the Chief Elder (Billie McBride), assigns each child his or her future career, a career for which training begins immediately. As his friends are being designated to care for the elderly or manage recreational activities, Jonas (Alastair Hennessy or Jackson Garske, alternately) is told that he is to become the next Receiver of Memories.
You see, in this homogenized world of the fractured future, love, loss, pain and all the other unpleasant and potentially society-threatening emotions and sensations have been done away with. Only the Keeper of Memories has access to them through the knowledge of the world as it once was. Periodically, the old Keeper must act as the Giver and transfer all of this knowledge to the new Receiver. Looking much like Donald Sutherland, Denver Center Theatre Company veteran Philip Pleasants plays the Giver. His portrayal is masterful yet understated.
In an apotheosis of sameness, the citizens of the future even control the weather, keeping things presumably at a nice 70 degrees and sunny all the time. So when the Giver gives Jonas the memory of snowfall and sledding, the boy’s mind is quite nearly blown. Snow is followed closely by rainbows and extinct animals like elephants, but for every feel-good memory Jonas must also take in a negative one. The pain of hunger is a new experience, but it is far less uncomfortable than the reality of warfare.
As his eyes are opened to a much wider and more varied world than he has ever dreamed existed, Jonas begins to question all the sameness. Why, he asks, can’t everyone share the memories, see the colors and feel the joy and pain of life?
Control, of course, is the answer. And for the play, the final question becomes how will Jonas use the memories with which he has been entrusted.
From the opening, dissonant minor chords composed by Gary Grundei to the use by Charlie I. Miller of projections to communicate the memories, every production aspect of The Giver draws the viewer into this quietly oppressive future. The actors all manage their roles well.
For me, though, The Giver felt more like a cautionary tone poem than a fully realized play. If I were still a YA, I think I would have connected with it on an emotional level, but as a full-blown adult I couldn’t get past some of the internal inconsistencies and plotting stumbles.
Though it may not thrill parents, The Giver should get rave reviews from their offspring. It certainly presents a great opportunity for the whole family to enjoy a night out at the theatre.
The Giver plays through Nov. 18 at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver. Visit www.denvercenter.org.