In middle school, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles served as my introduction to the awesome world of science fiction and sci-fi's idea of a dystopian future. Today, Lois Lowry's Newbery-winning novel The Giver serves that purpose for the legions entering a dystopian state of their own; suddenly everything safe and secure shape-shifts into a hormonally charged, sebum-clogged, media-saturated state of chaos. It's no wonder stories like this one, with their central theme of innocence lost, strike such a nerve among their readers.
In this People's Light production, Eric Coble's adaptation of Lowry's book highlights both the strengths and the limitations of the genre. The story borrows elements from just about every sci-fi classic. Women are assigned to be "birth mothers" who relinquish their young to assigned families, a la Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale; the elderly are "released," a la Soylent Green; there's some Planet of the Apes; even Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" makes a cameo. Still the story avoids being derivative by telling its narrative through young Jonas, played here with sensitivity by Cedric Lilly.
In Lowry's Orwellian utopia, a three-strikes-you're-out policy covers every infraction from impoliteness to causing anxiety or pain. Though no one really knows what happens once you're out, or where "out" actually is, in this stress-free world, everything seems as it ought to be.
Except, at Jonas' graduation ceremony, he receives his lifelong job assignment: He is to be the "Receiver of Memories," a sort of vessel holding all of human history, including its anxieties and pain. These memories are transmitted to Jonas through the Giver (Stephen Novelli), an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like mentor who has held them far too long and is now ready to relieve himself of their burden.
Costume designer Rosemarie E. McKelvey follows the community's credo of "sameness" to a T. Her monochromatic tunics recall both Star Trek and the Heaven's Gate cult - definitely the bookends to this play's sensibilities. James F. Pyne Jr.'s angular gray set is as spartan as the costumes, and also functions as a screen upon which the Giver's memories are projected. David Bradley's direction is bogged down by exposition during the early scenes between Lilly and Novelli, but really, without all the explanation, the audience would be pretty lost.
Because of the story's darker themes, this production is not appropriate for young children. However, for those who have already begun to feel what Lowry's characters call "the stirrings," those incipient adolescent emotions that inspire both fear and awe onstage and in life, The Giver may have just the message they are ready to receive.
Adapted by Eric Coble from the novel by Lois Lowry, directed by David Bradley, scenery by James F. Pyne, Jr., costumes by Rosemarie E. McKelvey, composer/sound and projection design by Jorge Cousineau, lighting by Dennis Parichy.
Cast: Peter DeLaurier (Father), Melanye Finister (Mother/Chief Elder), Maggie Fitzgerald (Lily), Cedric Lilly (Jonas), Marla Burkholder(Fiona/Rosemary), Mark Del Guzzo (Asher), Stephen Novelli (The Giver).
Playing at: People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Through May. 20.
Tickets: $20 to $26. Information: