Theatre Review: “The Giver” at the IRT

Fred Marshall and Garrett Mckenna in "The Giver" at the IRT.  Photo by Julie Curry.

I met my friend Chris in downtown Indianapolis at the professional Indiana Repertory Theatre for opening night of “The Giver” on Friday, October 23, 2009.  I apologize for taking so long to write and post this review.  I have had home computer problems on top of having a weird schedule the past two weeks.

Anyway, “The Giver” is based on the Newbery Award winning novel by Lois Lowry, which is about a post-apocalyptic world in which everyone is safe, healthy, and comfortable because they are prevented from making wrong choices.  The adaptation is by Eric Coble.   The IRT’s resident dramaturg, Richard J. Roberts, directed this production.

After the show, Chris turned to me and said, “I’m going to tell everyone I know about this.  Everyone at work tomorrow…everyone.”

I wiped my cheeks and said, “I want to tell everyone I know about this, too.  Let’s see, what’s the best way…oh, right: I have a blog!  Yay!”

So I’m telling you: this show is excellent. 

Now you may have the following three or four questions about this show in addition to the usual “What did you like about it?” question:

The Book Question

If you are a fan of Lois Lowry’s book, you may be anxious, as I was, about whether or not the stage version stays true to the book.  You may be especially concerned about how the stage version handles The Ending.  

It handles it all very well.  Everything is still very discussable but also very satisfying, just like the book.

(11/1/09 update:  I should mention, however, that if you hated the ambiguity of the ending in the book, you will probably hate it here, too.  I don’t know what to tell you about that except that for me, part of the fun of this book, and this show, is talking about What Happened At The End.)

The Kid Audience Question

In his curtain talk on opening night, the IRT’s Managing Director, Seven Stolen, said that over 13,000 students will see this production between now and Thanksgiving.  I know that many upper elementary and middle school students have to read this book in school.  Many love it in spite of it being assigned reading.

But if you are an adult theatre-goer, you may be thinking, “Really, Hope?  A kids’ book?”

To that I give you W. H. Auden, who said, “There are good books which are only for adults [because they presuppose adult experience] but there are no good books that are only for children.”  This story is universally engaging, and engaging on many levels.  Therefore even though it was written for kids, many adults will be moved and intrigued by it, too.

I hope you won’t let the fact that this is a play based on a book for older children and teens keep you from seeing it. 

The Kid Actors Question

What about the fact that the lead actor is only an 8th grader and half of the rest of the cast are even younger?

You don’t have to recalibrate your expectations at all for this piece.  All of the actors are outstanding.  The children’s performances go far beyond speaking clearly (which is the problem with most theatre that depends on child actors: you know they’re cute but you can’t understand what they’re saying, let alone who they’re trying to be or how they feel about the people sharing the stage with them.)  The young people in this show are easy to understand AND they are easy to believe.  You forget that you’re watching kids in a play, or even professional actors at work.  You’re watching complex young humans in very specific relationships in a very specific world.

What’s It About?

“The Giver” takes place in a world where “it’s rude to point out differences,” where people take pills all their lives to inhibit “the stirrings,” where people say “I enjoy you” rather than “I love you,” and where people who break the rules three times are…released. 

Yet it is not a bad world.  Quite the contrary.  Everyone in it is safe, healthy, and comfortable.  Everyone knows his or her place in it and the Elders who assign the places “never make mistakes.”

When the play opens, Jonas (Garrett McKenna) and his friends, Asher (Reilly Crouse) and Fiona (Maggie Williams), are all “Elevens.”  They are about to go through the ceremony to become “Twelves.”  At this ceremony, the Chief Elder (Jennifer Johansen) will thank them for their childhoods and identify for them their places in the community, based on their gifts.

Jonas’ Father (Robert K. Johansen), for example, has the gift of nurturing, so he works with the infants of the community.  Jonas’ Mother (Jennifer Johansen) has gifts related to law and justice, so she works in that field.

Jonas’ little sister, Lily (Anna Miller), says that she hopes when it is her turn, the Elders will assign her the job of birth mother.  But then her assigned mother says something like, “Oh, no, dear.  There is no honor in being a birth mother.  They are only allowed to give birth a certain number of times and then they become common laborers.”

Everyone is surprised at the ceremony when the Chief Elder tells Jonas, “Because you have courage, integrity, and the capacity to see beyond, you are the receiver of memory.”

There hasn’t been a Receiver since ten years ago.  Ten years ago, something happened to the last Receiver.  It is something that no one talks about.

Now every day after school, Jonas spends time with The Giver (Fred Marshall.)  The Giver is a kind of Obi-wan character who carries all of the memories of the community so that they do not have to be troubled by them.  However, Fred Marshall makes The Giver very human, too: complex and vulnerable, even with his great wisdom. 

“Great honor is not the same as great power,” he sadly tells Jonas.  When he gives Jonas the memories of “grandfather” and “love,” Jonas begins to wish that The Giver were his real grandfather.

He also begins to think about change.

So Why Not Just Read the Book?

Well, I hope that you do read the book some day, if you have not already.  If you like books such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, or A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, or Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, or Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, then I bet you would like The Giver, by Lois Lowry, too.

However, this production of “The Giver” is satisfying not only because it is faithful to the original novel but also because it is artistically satisfying in its own right.  In addition to the exceptional acting, the design elements are excellent, too.

The Set, the Costumes, the Lighting, and the Sound

Everyone and everything in this world is basically cut from the same beige-and-grey materials.  It is not boring, exactly: the space-age doors are very cool, for one thing and the unique glow from the city-scape’s windows is intriguing.  You don’t even know that you’ve been missing color – or music or texture or fragrance, for that matter – until, like Jonas, you begin to get it back.   Only then do you realize: Oh!  What you have been missing! 

That is the subtle message that Scenic Designer James Schumacher, Lighting Designer Betsy Cooprider-Bernstein, and Sound Designer Todd Mack Reischman give us through their artistry.  Most of the community is orderly and rather bland but The Giver’s room is delightfully chaotic, stuffed to the ceiling with books, paintings, and more.  The sense memories that he bequeaths to Jonah are sometimes painful but always rich.  The more memories Jonas receives, the more color we see in The Giver’s room.

(11/1/09 – Update: I’ve been thinking some more about the use of color in this show.  I like that we “only” get touches of red, not the whole rainbow.  Red is the color of essentials, such as blood.  It is also the color of the base, first chakra.  It is one of the three primary colors, too.  Jonas is still really only at the beginning of his journey.)

Linda Pisano’s costume designs are eloquent, too, in their portrayal of a world that prides itself on its “sameness” but is not, actually, all that homogenous.

Amy K. Denkmann is the stage manager.  From my seat in the audience on Friday night, everything from the apple in Asher’s pocket to the overpowering memory of War seemed perfectly placed and executed.

Chatting with Chris and Claire On Stage

After the show, since it was opening night, anyone in the audience could go up on the stage and look at everything up close while talking with some of the theatre’s design staff.

My friend, Chris, and I talked with Chris Fretts and Claire Dana.  Chris Fretts is the IRT’s Technical Director.  Claire Dana is the IRT’s Charge Scenic Artist (which means, I think, that among other things, she is in charge of painting the sets.)

They showed us how the shimmering light in the community’s windows had been achieved by painting pieces of scrim to match the grey carpet that covered the city-scape background.  Behind the window-shaped pieces of scrim were light boxes.  My description does not do justice to how “other-worldly” it looked.

Chris and Claire also showed us the tire wheel behind the set.  A real tire, like from a dune buggy, was set against the large, round piece of stage that held The Giver’s room on one side and Jonas’ home and other places on the other.  The tire was connected to a motor.  When the motor ran, the tire nudged the set around.  Chris told us there were sensors that told the motor when to stop.

There was not very much room back there!  I wanted to know how the stage hands had switched out the grey books for red books so quickly and quietly.  Chris and Claire told us that they had enlarged a black-and-white photograph of the books and attached magnets to the back.  Instead of actually replacing the books, one stage hand (and there is only one back there!) has a long pole with another magnet attached that lets her just tap the photograph to pull it off and reveal the red books that have been there all along.

I was impressed by the cleverness of this strategy, but I still think that one stage hand has a lot to do in a very small space!  She does it all very well.

I very much enjoyed talking with Chris and Claire not only about “The Giver” but also about the four(!) other IRT shows they are working on now. Chris told us that the team for the IRT’s late spring production of “Around the World in 80 Days” has already had its first meeting!  Claire shared with us a few details about some of her other favorite IRT shows in the past.  They both shared stories about how the IRT keeps its long-running production of “A Christmas Carol” fresh and yet true to the designers’ original visions.  Chris and Claire both obviously love their jobs and are passionate about what they do.  I could have listened to them talk about their work for hours.

VIPs vs. JEPs

But, of course, we didn’t want to keep them for hours, so eventually my friend Chris and I went upstairs to the 4th floor lobby to toast the show with champagne at the opening night reception.  There were all kinds of yummy nibbles to snack on and beautiful people to watch.

Before the show, we had also accepted an invitation to the “VIP reception.”  It took place in an alcove lounge on the 3rd floor, which turned out to be at stage level for the Upperstage. 

The “VIP reception” was very intimate – no blending into the walls to people-watch there! – but also very enjoyable.

I tell you about both of these receptions because it seems only fair to tell you that I went into the show feeling well-fed and special and I left the theatre feeling well-fed and special, which I’m sure put me in a mood to enjoy the show and speak well of it.

However.

I am, and always will be, more JEP (Just Everyday People) than VIP (Very Important People) and if ever a show disappoints me, I will tell you.  All the fresh asparagus in the world will not keep me from it.

I loved this show.

A Moment of Insanity

After my friend and I said goodbye, I started to drive home.  “Wait a minute!” I thought.  “I am downtown and it’s only 9:30!  Claire Wilcher is performing a 10 o’clock show of ‘The Headless Horseman Unscripted’ at ComedySportz tonight.  Claire loves The Giver.  I have to tell her right away to go see “The Giver” at the IRT!”

I turned my car around and headed over to Massachusetts Avenue, paid $12 to get in to ComedySportz and realized…that I was nuts to be thinking of telling someone that the reason I was at her show was to tell her how good another show had been. 

So I laughed at myself, ordered a lemonade in a plastic souvenir cup, and settled in to enjoy the “Headless Horseman” comedy improv show.  I had a fine time, maybe especially because I knew no one would be expecting me to write about it.  I laughed a lot.  I left without saying anything to anyone except “Thank you! That was fun!”

But Claire, if you happen to read this, a) you were a hoot and b) you MUST find a way to get a night off and go see “The Giver” at the IRT!

Box Office

“The Giver” runs through November 21, 2009 on the Upperstage at the Indiana Repertory Theatre.  Please call the Ticket Office at 317-635-5252 for more information or to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

Email:  amarylliswriter at gmail dot com

Twitter: @IndyTheatre

(Photo above taken by Julie Curry.)

6 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “The Giver” at the IRT”

  1. Such an endorsement! I want to take my children to see this. Is there an age group that is too young for this story? My youngest is seven her brothers are ten and thirteen.

    M

  2. Yay, Claire! I’m glad.

    Machelle, I guess in general I would not take a seven-year-old to this show because it is 80-90 minutes with no intermission and it is very distracting to the actors and other audience members when someone is restless and asking to leave to use the restroom after 30 minutes.

    On the other hand, I don’t know your 7-year-old daughter or her ability to sit still.

    In terms of the content, the scene in which The Giver gives Jonas the memory of War is not graphic but it is pretty disturbing. I also think that the realization that in this world they kill babies who literally don’t measure up is pretty chilling and guaranteed to produce some questions. Plus, of course, there’s the ending: did Jonas die and go to heaven or did he reach some other, home-like place and live happily ever after? What happened to baby Ben?

    I don’t know what to tell you for sure. I hope this gives you some more information to make a good decision for your own daughter.

  3. PS – I hope that if you do decide to let your 7-year-old see this show that you don’t just drop her off at the theatre with her brothers. Treat yourself to a ticket, too!

Leave a Reply