By RJ Johnson
The line between a utopian society and a dystopian nightmare is very thin if you consider the world that is created in ‘The Giver’, by Eric Coble, based on the book by Lois Lowry, and directed by Colby Bleicher. This is the final show of Anchorage Community Theatre’s 65th season. ACT has given us some great performances and experiences in the past 9 months, ranging from the emotional to the hilarious and this new think piece is no exception.
Society has done its best to take away discomfort and pain by making sure that everyone converts to “Sameness.” Color has been removed, and shades of gray are the only option for clothing, decoration, food, and even people. This emotional blandness works, and when it does not, members of society are “Released” to the “Elsewhere” in hopes of keeping order. The 12-year-old members of this society are about to receive the assignments that will let them know what their job and purpose in life is. Jonas is selected to take the position of Receiver of Memory. This one person stores all memories of the time before “Sameness”, in order to counsel the Elders when wisdom gained from history can help with decision-making. As Jonas begins to receive the memories the concepts of emotions and good or evil are introduced to him. He begins to question not only the way things are, but also why.
The technical crew for this production must be commended. To create a monochromatic world that still manages to stay interesting must have been an ordeal, and they succeeded on all fronts. Costume design by Brigette Hoffman is a stand out as her design choices we able to let us know more about the characters but could have been worn at many points in the past or future. They complimented and assisted with letting us get to know characters without taking from the story. Lighting designer Carl Bright and set designer Missy Bright are a couple, and their skills of collaboration and cooperation are apparent within this world they have created on the small ACT stage. Sound design by Lily Werts and props by Jamie Rodriguez helped to actualize the scenes nicely. Assistant Director David Robert Fink and Stage Manager Kasondra Morin must be proud to be part of this production as well, as it is obviously been a labor of love for all involved.
The production opens as a family sits down to dinner. Andrea Gardner in the role of the Mother and Eric Glatt as the Father are asking their children about their day. From the first moment of the show the robotic and alien way they poised questions and gave responses seemed too well rehearsed, and that is exactly the point in this world where nothing can be unique. My only other experience seeing Glatt in a show he performed what was largely a non-speaking part. It was a pleasure to see him take on a role with more lines, and I enjoyed this character he created very much. Gardner is returning for her second show at ACT after a long hiatus from performing. I hope that Gardner continues acting locally, as she has been a wonderful surprise each time I have gotten to watch her.
The children being raised by the couple are Jonas and Lily, played by Aven Koontz and Lily Muniz, respectively. Muniz is a lot of fun to watch in the role of the younger child. Sometimes sassy but never bratty, they are what we all remember our younger siblings to naturally be like. Koontz is fantastic in the role of Jonas. The real skill of this talented artist is revealed the longer that the show goes on. Physical movements, tone of voice, and even facial expressions become entirely new as more memories are received by the character of Jonas. They are going to be an actor to watch out for in other productions. The slow transformation is remarkable. Bleicher made a great directorial choice in not only their selection of performers, but also to cast actors that are the appropriate age for the characters they are playing. This story is dark, but it was written for readers the same age as many in the cast.
The title character of The Giver was brought to life by John H. Bocachica. His physical look is beautifully chosen for this role, but it is the slow emphasis he puts into the delivery of his lines that draw you in. As an audience we can feel the weight of the world that these memories have placed on his shoulders, and as the memories are transferred to Koontz’s Jonas, he also goes through a transformation, as if he knows the damage that can happen from knowledge. The scenes between this pair are some of my favorite in the show, as we get to witness the storms that come to life behind their light eyes.
Each role in this production was well cast, and well-acted. Jonas’ friends Asher, played by Alex Ziegler, and Fiona, played by Anika Tronnes, are delightful and all of the interactions among the younger actors are fun to watch. The Chief Elder is brought to life by Joan Cullinane expertly, and her commanding presence makes it clear why the children respect the character. Equally engaging is the performance of Lucy MacCabe Conner as Larissa for an entirely different reason. She portrays an innate sweetness and draws you in with charm, making it even more heartbreaking when the actual process of “Releasing” is revealed.
I want to make special note of the performance by Drew Congdon as Rosemary. The part that this young actress is given is that of a ghost, a memory. With no words to express her pain and fear she relies only on physical movement and facial expression. She is beyond captivating and does more than succeed in her task.
Director Bleicher has revealed that part of the rehearsal process was to have long discussion with her cast and crew as a group to discuss the themes explored in this play. Audiences will likely find themselves having similar discussions after seeing this 2-hour performance. Even if you have read the book time and again, seeing these moments happen in front of you changes the depth and gravity of what each dark concept means. This show is very appropriate for the audience Lois Lowry intended it for, just be prepared for some wonderful talks of your own to occur soon after.
The Giver runs through May 26th at Anchorage Community Theatre. Tickets available by calling 907-344-4713 or visit www.actalaska.org