OCT’s gray and brilliant ‘Giver’: it’s humans’ theater

The children's theater's revival of the dystopian Lois Lowry tale reverberates beyond its core audience's years

Not everyone can carry the weight of the world.

In the society that author Lois Lowry imagined for her novel The Giver, only one person at a time can carry any real emotional weight at all. Therefore that person has to carry all of it. For everyone.

That person – both fortunate and unfortunate, though perhaps in unequal measures – is known as the Receiver of Memory, and serves as a sort of walking data center of human experience and natural history. The Receiver learns  or in some mysterious way absorbs – the panoply of facts, sensations and emotions that have been tamped down since society’s leaders decided to adopt Sameness, a state of superficially cheerful, pervasively gray social, sexual and even environmental conformity.

Ostensibly, this allows the Receiver to be the source of wise advice. But really, no one wants to know.

 

Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives a memory from the Giver (Andrés Alcalá). Photo: Owen Carey

Jonas (Tristan Comella) receives a memory from the Giver (Andrés Alcalá). Photo: Owen Carey

Not surprisingly, this bland dystopia has its dark corners. And the latest Oregon Children’s Theatre production, assertively directed by Matt Zrebski, doesn’t shy away from them. It’s harrowing, in a quiet kind of way, without being heavy-handed, and has a clarity and poignancy that make it as rewarding for adults as for the middle-school crowd it’s mostly aimed at. (OCT recommends the show for children nine years or older.)

OCT first produced The Giver eight years ago, having convinced Lowry of the theater’s passion for the story and having commissioned a stage adaptation by Cleveland playwright Eric Coble, who’d previously written the company’s 2002 treatment of  Sacagawea.

That 2006 production earned OCT national attention as a place for new-play development, and the creative relationships with both Lowry and Coble have continued to bear fruit. OCT artistic director Stan Foote talked Lowry into writing her first play, a stage version of her novel Gossamer, which the company gave a luminous premiere in 2008. Coble (whose 2010 play The Velocity of Autumn is currently on Broadway) adapted Matt Phelan’s Dust Bowl graphic novel The Storm in the Barn for OCT a few years ago, then returned to the Lowry ouevre – and to the same fictional world as The Giver – a year ago with Gathering Blue.

The stories in the set of books that’s sometimes called The Giver Quartet (it also includes Messenger and Son) take place amid societies that have taken radically different approaches in a vaguely post-apocalyptic world. The community of Gathering Blue values story, expressiveness, color, yet is socially harsh and materially primitive. By contrast, Tal Sanders’ sleek, monochromatic scenic design for this production of The Giver could be a low-rent relative of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis, and the life that our main character, a pre-teen named Jonas, knows is boringly comfortable, devoid of not just color but also variety and choice, joy and pain, excitement and danger.

It feels appropriate, then, that Zrebski seems to have opted for an intentionally stiff acting style, except for the two characters – the Receiver and the Giver – who come to realize that there could be more to the bloodless lives around them.

As a book, The Giver occasionally has stirred controversy; its tone and content are darker than some folks think a “children’s” story ought to be. Those folks, of course, are wrong. “That’s one of the joys of working with OCT,” says Coble. “The attitude is always, ‘If we can find artistic ways to move through those things and grapple with fears, let’s do that.’ And a lot of other theaters aren’t willing to do that.”

Part coming-of-age tale, part social commentary, part “thought experiment” (as Ursula LeGuin describes her speculative fiction), The Giver centers on Jonas and his friends reaching the age at which the elders assign them their lifetime work: birth mother, caregiver, assistant-director of recreation, fish-hatchery attendant, and so forth. Sensitive and introspective, Jonas (nicely realized by Wilson High junior Tristan Comella) gets a rare and mysterious honor, the job as Receiver of Memory. Apprenticed to the Giver, Jonas learns about aspects of human experience banished to the past (from love to war), as well as some of the disquieting accommodations made to maintain the current calm.

Andrés Alcalá as the Giver provides the full-spectrum performance this show needs at its center, showing us the sweetness in such simple pleasures as a memory of snowfall, yet also conveying the weariness and worry of someone carrying the burden of history’s accumulated horrors and humanities hurtful tendencies. That you have to take the bad with the good in life may not be the most surprising of insights, but there’s a deep poignance to Lowry’s stark presentation of the notion, and to the elegant simplicity of Zrebski’s staging – to which Sanders’ scenic and lighting designs and Jeff Kurihara’s video projections are essential.

This is the sort of show that OCT has excelled at in recent years, but has struggled to sell. The kiddie crowd that flocks to the likes of Pinkalicious isn’t quite ready for this, but OCT would like to draw more of the inquisitive middle-school audience. But even though the bulk of OCT’s work proves that “children’s theater” shouldn’t be considered a pejorative, the term doesn’t quite fit a production such as The Giver, anyway. Consider this humans’ theater.

 

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