Long before "The Hunger Games" became a best-selling book and then a blockbuster movie, novelist Lois Lowry had already imagined a persuasively chilling dystopian future for young readers.
In her 1993 children's novel "The Giver," killing has a more euphemistic name. People, even wee babies, get "released." And youngsters aren't drafted into the "Survivor"-like bouts to the death as Katniss Everdeen and her "Hunger Games" peers are. They are, however, expected to follow the rules of a profoundly regimented society that on the face of it appears benign.
Over dinner a smiling mother and father ask about their kids' feelings. In turn, they share theirs. It might be lovely were it not an enforced, nightly ritual, that is meant to purge those very feelings.
In her novel, Lowry devised a challenging conundrum ( one some found too dark for middle-school readers): How could a community that makes a virtue of transparency become so oppressively opaque?
In 2005, the Newbery Medal-winner was adapted by playwright Eric Coble for the Oregon Children's Theatre.
A nuanced, beautifully fluid production is now onstage at the Denver Center's Ricketson Theatre through Nov. 18.
Jonas is about to turn 12 and he's a bit apprehensive. That is the age that he and his friends Asher and Fiona — "Elevens" as they're called — undergo the Ceremony of 12, when they learn their future role in society, their "assignment."
Some will become Nurturers, like Jonas' gentle father, who works with newchildren. Others might be designated as Fish Hatchery Attendants or Caretakers of the Old. Some become Birth Mothers.
Jonas turns out to have special gifts and so the Chief Elder (Billie McBride) names him "Receiver of Memories." With the aid of the Giver, he'll become the repository for all the memories the community had before they ushered in the Sameness.
As the play's title character, Denver Center veteran Philip Pleasants ("Heartbreak House") injects much-needed warmth into the chill. Gray-haired, bearded, he resembles the wizards Dumbledore and Gandalf not only in appearance but in his breadth of knowledge and his compassion, especially when he encourages Jonas in a rebellious undertaking.
He's painfully aware of the burden he transmits. There was a child before Jonas that did not fare well. And it's hard to miss the symbolism at the start of "The Giver," when Jonas and Asher toss an apple back and forth and Jonas feels an inkling of something strange and sees a throbbing red light. Colorblindness is a trait of most in his community.
Timothy McCraken gives a nice and therefore troubling turn as Jonas' father. He has a gentle sing-song befitting his role as "Nurturer." And he appears boldly kind when he brings home a baby he names Gabriel and whom he hopes to protect from being released. And yet....
There's a warmth to Lowry's prose that isn't quite replicated in Coble's adaptation. Even so, director Christy Montour-Larson and her team find a fresh eloquence in the staging.
Fifty shades of gray might best characterize the set design (Robert Mark Morgan) and costume design (Meghan Anderson Doyle). They capture the monotone and emptiness of the community without dulling the look of the play.
Charlie Miller's projection design adds enormously to the experience. There's a particularly powerful use of projected images when Jonas takes a vital and vivid bicycle ride and later, when he boards a sled with the little baby Gabriel.
A quick note: A number of the children's roles are played by more than one actor. The afternoon I saw "The Giver," it was well served by lanky Jackson Garske as Jonas, Gabe Koskinen-Sansone as Asher, Amelia Modesitt as Lily, and Isabel Sabbah as Fiona. Their alternates respectively are Alastair Hennessy, Evan Sullivan, Aliza Fassett, and Brynn Gauthier.
Lisa Kennedy: 303-954-1567, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/bylisakennedy
"THE GIVER." A Denver Center Theatre Company production. Written by Eric Coble. Based on Lois Lowry's novel. Directed by Christy Montour-Larson. Featuring Jackson Garske, Philip Pleasants, Timothy McCracken, Diana Dresser, and Amelia Modesitt. Through Nov. 18 at the Ricketson Theatre in the Helen Bonfiles Theatre Complex, 14th and Curtis. 10 a.m. and noon Tues and Thurs. 10 a.m. Weds. 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sat. 1:30 p.m. Sun. Tickets $37-$47 via denvercenter.org or 303-893-4100