As The Giver begins, Jonas is worried. One of the main characters in the latest production by Children's Theater of Madison (through Feb. 23 at Overture Center's Playhouse), he is about to go through the Ceremony of Twelve, where the chief elder announces which profession has been chosen for each youth in the carefully controlled, utopian community. It is the day that each young person is thanked for their childhood and ushered into their government-issued responsibilities.
It turns out that Jonas, played ably by the young actor Jack Thompson, has every right to be worried. His society has adopted "sameness" for the good of the collective, eliminating extremes of any kind. War, pain and starvation have been erased from the culture, but so have love and the power of individuals to make decisions. Hills are too challenging to the landscape, weather is too unpredictable, and colors are too bright. Emotional urges are controlled with pills, and families are assembled only long enough to raise the two requisite children that come from anonymous "birthmothers."
But Jonas is brave, and he has an emotional understanding of the world that sets him apart from his peers. He is chosen for the esteemed position of "receiver of memory" and begins his training with the current receptacle for history and human experience, called only "the Giver." As Jonas learns about all his society has shunned, he realizes that he cannot perpetuate the system and begins to plot his escape.
As the aged Giver who is transferring his memories to young Jonas, Paul Bentzen stands out in the cast. From his magical entrances to his color infused home and costumes, this is a decidedly richer character than the automatons that populate the rest of the story. But Bentzen also brings depth and subtlety to the role, with obvious affection for his charge, regret and loss regarding a former student, and the weight of his memories physically wearing him down.
Another moving performance was delivered, wordlessly, by Katelyn Curtin. As Rosemary, the girl who chose to be "released" rather than bear the pain of the culture's memories, Curtin is captivating. Watching her face contort as the Giver relates her sad story is one of the most touching points of the play.
Mike Lawler's impressive set is imposing, both psychologically and in terms of scale. It fills the Playhouse with expansive and cold gray walls, rounded columns of balconies, and hints of surveillance tools. Three levels covered in gray carpeting give the actors plenty of places to play, and when Jonas starts seeing the color red, it glows brilliantly against the sterile backdrop.
A Newbery Award-winning novel by Lois Lowry, The Giver is one of the most popular books in middle school literature classes and, oddly, is also on the American Library Association's list of "most challenged books" of the 1990s. Children's Theater of Madison performs a stage adaptation by Eric Coble that will probably convince many audience members to read the book, because it feels like a great deal has been left out of the production. The relationships between Jonas and his friends are painfully underdeveloped, and the ending scenes lack impact onstage. Despite inventive staging by director Patrick Holland, the play ultimately doesn't give enough to the audience.