Saturday, July 17, 2021

Cloverdale Playhouse: "The Giver"

After a year-and-a-half away from indoor theatre performances, returning to the Cloverdale Playhouse's production of The Giver was exhilarating on many levels. -- With attention to COVID protocols, the theatre maintained a safe space atmosphere that allowed audiences to engage in the play's themes, and afforded many opportunities to get caught up in the performances of the talented ensemble actors.

Director La'Brandon Milbry-Tyre guided the cast through Eric Coble's adaptation of the Newberry Prize-winning novel by Lois Lowry: a dystopian fiction set in a not-too-distant future, where blandness, control, and safety pass for an ideal life in the "community", where everyone accepts their assigned roles; that is, until the "Ceremony of the Twelves", where twelve-year-old children are given their life assignments, and one boy named Jonas [Ashana Woodson] is tapped with the distinct honor to be the next "Receiver of Memory". He is taught in secret by the Giver of the title [Cushing Phillips] all the long historical memory of the "community" -- the knowledge of both joy and pain, good and evil, peace and war -- and comes to realize that his previous utopian world isn't all it is cracked up to be.

From the opening curtain speech [a disembodied voice welcomes us to the theatre and controls our responses], to the grey set that snakes its way into the auditorium [J. Scott Grinstead masterfully disguises its several moving parts that reveal new places and expanding knowledge given to the boy; and the "projections" along the theatre's side walls depicting war and travel are stunning], to the drab utilitarian costumes [Sarah Walker Thornton's olive/beige choices emphasize military discipline, and fluid drapery of outsiders is remarkable], to the eerie soundscape [Noah Henninger's choices keep us on the edge], and hard-focused lighting [Joseph Crawford softens many scenes to excellent effect], all the production elements conspire to insinuate that all is not well in this seemingly ideal place.

In this ideal "community", a lengthy exposition introduces us to a typical nuclear family [Father, Mother, Jonas, and Lily], their assorted neighbors and friends, and we feel comfortable with them as they try to fit in to the demands of their leaders. The introduction of an infant to the household -- one of a pair of twins that Father [Kevin Mohajerin] dotes on -- adds some tension to the family unit. Things liven up when Jonas interacts with Asher [Michael Pritchard] and Fiona [Bella Dennison] in recognizable pre-teen fashion, their quirky personalities at the forefront. 

But we also hear reports of people who, for whatever reason, are "released" to an unknown and purportedly good "elsewhere". And the children are curious, but not put off by not knowing.

While the focus of the plot is on the Giver/Jonas relationship, the gifted ensemble players imbue their characters with distinct personalities, and demonstrate a fine-tuned collaborative spirit in supporting one another while contributing individually to the plot and its tensions. Mr. Mohajerin, Mr. Pritchard, and Ms. Dennison are particularly convincing, as are Valerie Roberts as Mother, and Riley Carroll as Lily.

Mr. Phillips subtly shows the conflicted role of the Giver with admirable restraint -- one who must teach all the memory to Jonas no matter how hurtful it may be, and advise the danger ahead should the boy choose to go elsewhere and thereby release all the memory back to the "community", while maintaining some secrecy about his own past. Their relationship is based on trust, and both these actors/characters demonstrate it fully.

And, Ms. Woodson -- in a stunning debut stage performance -- carries the bulk of the production on her capable shoulders. Her confidence in the role as she interacts with family, friends, and authority figures in a variety of ways; her vocal clarity and power; her emotional and intellectual range as she investigates and decides on a course of action to pursue with her new-found knowledge; her ability to share the stage with her fellow actors,  all make for an impressive performance that ought to jump-start her theatrical future.

Though the ending does not draw to a neat conclusion, the audience is left to deliberate on the choices we make to know our own history and how we can contribute to our own life's course.