‘The Giver’ is a capital idea for travelers

Denver Center stages winning adaptation of Lowry’s novel

Philip Pleasants (The Giver) and Alastair Hennessy (Jonas) star in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of “The Giver.” Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Vicki Kerr/The Denver Center

Philip Pleasants (The Giver) and Alastair Hennessy (Jonas) star in the Denver Center Theatre Company’s production of “The Giver.”

Anxiety is in the air as Jonas approaches his 12th birthday. Who wouldn’t be nervous when your life’s occupation will be announced at a special ceremony for all children hinging on adulthood?

That’s the opening scene in the adaptation of Lois Lowry’s seminal novel for young adults, The Giver. Lowry wrote the book in 1993 and won the Newbery Medal for her utopian vision with its clearly marked shadow. Eric Coble adapted the work for the Oregon Children’s Theatre and now Edward Lapine directs for the Denver Center of the Performing Arts.

“The Giver” closes out an impressive fall lineup that included a new adaptation of “The Three Musketeers,” another coming-of-age story of a happier and more robust nature.

The title role of “The Giver” is played by Denver company stalwart Philip Pleasants. Here he is even older and more frail that his King Lear of a few years ago. Stooped, white-haired and wise, The Giver keeps the memories of his people. By choice, they have abandoned all things disturbing to the emotions – above all, color, music and memory.

Set in the future, the norm is now comfort, peace and tranquility. Only The Giver knows pain and sorrow, beauty and ugliness. Only he can transmit the same to young Jonas (Jackson Garske) so that the community can live in the Sameness.

On a gray, stylized set, the Denver production evolves from a chatty but bland family dinner to a formal ceremony assigning adult roles. When Jonas visits his mentor, The Giver transmits memories one by one, first snow, later sunlight. He also introduces the boy to a colorful library of books with unexpected results. The trajectory of the play cleaves closely to the novel and is brilliantly realized with short, concentrated scenes and film projections to suggest the memories and the landscape of escape.

For almost a decade, Lowry’s book has been standard reading in middle schools across the country. It’s a brilliant evocation of the bridge from childhood to adulthood, or as Lowry calls it in another book: “The Beginning of Sadness.” The work also has been controversial, primarily because it includes themes of loss and death. In Jonas’ world, death is referred to with a euphemism: release. The Denver production treats all these themes with sensitivity and clarity.

“The Giver” provided a stunning contrast to “The Three Musketeers,” the famous high-spirited fantasy of a young man who makes good in Paris. I was lucky to see the final performance of a new adaptation. It immediately plunges d’Artangnan (Ben Rosenbaum) into the action at a time when dueling has been outlawed in France. That doesn’t stop him or his colleagues (remember “One for all and all for one”?) On a colorful and flexible set, the lads careened through regimental barracks, Parisian streets, the royal court, a tavern and Milady’s boudoir. Rising to every insult, the Musketeers pull out their swords, not their muskets. Credit combat choreographer Gregory Hoffman for splendid fight scenes, and kudos to Charles Pasternak and John Hutton for unforgettable portrayals of King Louis and Cardinal Richelieu.

Would that Alexandre Dumas’ coming-of-age story had a longer run. It made for a telling contrast with “The Giver.”

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

Comments » Read and share your thoughts on this story