Enter a world of sameness. A world without color, where clothes, furniture, even apples, are all gray. A world without choice: two children to each family and no twins allowed. A world without pain, a world without flaws. A world in which all individuality is subordinate to the standardized behavior and orderliness of the community. Does this sound like something from the futuristic pages of George Orwell? No need to look to the future. Better perhaps to recall the past.
Four years ago this week, Metro Theater Company and Washington University's Edison Theatre (which has since truncated its name to Edison) joined together to stage the U.S. premiere of Hana's Suitcase, a fact-based drama, much of which was set in a not-dissimilar world: Hitler's Third Reich. The current combined Metro-Edison offering, The Giver, which has been adapted from the acclaimed 1993 science- fiction novel by Lois Lowry, is set in the future. The Giver continues the conversation begun with Hana's Suitcase. Once again, Metro and Edison are providing an evening of thoughtful entertainment for audiences young and old.
That it delivers such a completely satisfying theater experience in just over an hour is to the credit of many, beginning with Eric Coble, who has distilled Lowry's 179-page novel so deftly that you don't really miss anything. Coble succinctly captures the essence and the tone of the book. Especially at the outset, he manages to advance the story more briskly than does Lowry.
As that story begins, twelve-year-old Jonas is about to learn his life's vocation at the Ceremony of Twelve. To his great surprise, the Committee of Elders does not assign Jonas a conventional job (Assistant Director of Recreation, Caretaker of the Old). Instead he is selected to be the community's next Receiver of Memory. Jonas is to go into training with the Giver, a wise if weary seer who carries the crushing weight of world experiences on his shoulders and in his mind. As the aged Giver begins to transfer his pre-community knowledge to the heretofore-brainwashed boy — as books and colors begin to fill this young man's mind, as true joy and suffering replace the artificial substitutes he has known — Jonas is, as Charles Dickens might put it, restored to life. But he also discovers that even a little learning can be a dangerous commodity in a world of sameness.
Director Carol North has assembled a production that is admirable for both its spareness and its clarity. The antiseptic world of the community is created as much in our imaginations as it is on the Edison stage. North always manages to elicit something remarkable from her technical team. Again she uses percussion instruments onstage to slightly discombobulate us. John Wylie's effectively restrained lighting design chooses its moments of flash wisely. Dunsi Dai's set design finds magic in simplicity. Dai transforms books into objects of mystery. And note the lovely touch provided by the telescope and world globe in the Giver's apartment. Their very presence bestows upon the Giver the authority of a Galileo.
Although many roles are double-cast, the acting ensemble I saw was exemplary. Nicholas Kryah brought a proper gentleness to the Giver, Christian Probst was completely convincing as Jonas, Berklea Going exuded a natural charm as his young friend Fiona. Not having read the playbill in advance, I did not know that the production would play out in an intermissionless hour. When the play ended, I was actually disoriented. I had no idea how long I'd been in the Edison. During my unsettling visit to this antiseptically perfect world, time had been suspended. Would that it were so more often.