Gray rectangular panels hang like opaque windows on the back wall of the stage. They are mirrored by gray rectangular panels on the black floor, and gray rectangular tables and benches that furnish the spaces in which the characters – dressed in blocky tunics the same shade of light gray – live their gray, square lives.
This is what “Sameness” looks like, as effectively imagined by set designer Johnmichael Bohach and costume designer Kim Brown: colorless, rectilinear, rule-bound. Based on Lois Lowry’s popular and award-winning novel, The Giver (adapted by Eric Coble) presents a utopian Community in which social harmony is engineered through the radical abolishment of competition and choice. Children are taken from their birth mothers to be raised by adults unrelated to them; at twelve, they are assigned to a profession selected by a committee of elders. The same rules apply equally to all, and the same benefits accrue to all, eliminating the differentials in wealth and possession that lead to social conflict. People are equal and without material wants. It’s a harmonious and placid world.
But as we all know, every utopia is also a dystopia. Here, it falls to young Jonas (Will Sendera) to discover the disturbing foundation on which his peaceful and conflict-free life is based. Jonas can “see beyond” – which means that he can see color where the rest of the people around him can only see shades of black and white (an effect achieved cleverly through J.R. Shaw’s pinpoint lighting design). Instead of receiving a normal career assignment at the age of twelve like his peers, Jonas is chosen to be the “Receiver” of the Community’s memories, and sent to train with the current holder of that office, the Giver (Ken Lutz). In the process of receiving that treasure store of memories, Jonas comes to realize what “Sameness” has cost his community, and takes action to force it into change.
I’ll confess I haven’t read Lowry’s novel, so I’m not in a position to judge how faithfully Coble’s adaptation hews to the original. The story the play tells is clear and direct, building suspense through the first act about what, precisely, Jonas will do with the heavy responsibility he’s been given (at intermission, a young boy in front of me exclaimed to his dad: “this is a real cliffhanger!”) The theatrical challenges posed by Coble’s script are handled deftly by Prime Stage’s director, Melissa Hill Grande, and her design team. Video designer Joe Spinogatti and sound designer Angela Baughman vividly enliven the memories the Giver imparts to Jonas in images projected on the rectangular screens and sound effects that immerse us in the memory with him – the sound of wind and snow, of a horse’s gallop, of laughter and music at a birthday party. Bohach also nicely contrasts the straight-edged, monochromatic world of the community with the Giver’s curve- and color-filled apartment, which intrudes from behind the screens in a metaphorical foreshadowing of the play’s ending.
In addition to Sendera and Lutz, the cast includes Ricardo Vila-Roger as the Father, Zanna Fredland as the Mother, Micah Primack and Grace Vensel as Jonas’s friends Asher and Fiona, Gina Preciado as Larissa, Naomi Grodin as the Chief Elder, and the charismatic – and truly adorable – Sadie Primack as Jonas’s little sister Lily. The ensemble gives persuasive performances all around, making clear, strong choices to show that a life of passionless contentment may be comfortable, but it is hardly really living.