February 23, 2007

The Giver — giving up pain, losing the joy
by David Ollington

In November of 2004, Time magazine rated Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre as one of the top five professional children’s theatres in the U.S. The Coterie broadcasts this accolade on their web site in big type. This innovative theatre, under the visionary artistic direction of Jeff Church, well deserves both Time’s honoring and to toot its own horn.

A skilled theatrical craftsperson can, with focus and some basic creative instinct, keep the attention of a youthful audience with a play about fantasy, fairies, pirates or dinosaurs. A good artistic staff can produce a light, fast-moving children’s production that serves its purpose: entertain, divert and make ‘em laugh. A sign of true greatness in the field of “Theatre for All Ages” is the ability to skillfully express the darker side of humanity.

Awaiting their fate during the Ceremony of the Twelve in The Giver are (l to r) Fiona (Chloe Fey), Jonas (Chris Fielder) and Asher (Brandin Tolbert) (photo by Robert Schraeder/Coterie Theatre)

With the Coterie’s current work, The Giver, Church proves (as he has done before) his ability to use the theatre to express, to young and old, the deeper currents of our lives.

Based on the award-winning book by Lois Lowry and adapted for the stage by Eric Coble, The Giver tells a futuristic story of a semi-utopian society, a Soilent Green or Logan’s Run for youth. The story raises questions about existence itself and the breadth of experience

We encounter a benignly polite family, Father (Walter Coppage), Mother (Kimberly Queen), Jonas (Chris Fielder), and Lily (played precociously by Katie Hall). Amidst smiles and placation, they prepare for Jonas’ twelfth birthday, what they call his “Ceremony of 12.”

The tragic nature of this world unveils slowly. At first glance, it seems fun, a typical family in an atypical world. Regarding the upcoming Ceremony of 12, Jonas states, “I’m feeling apprehensive,” and Father comfortingly declares, “Fun doesn’t end when you become 12.” We begin to realize that this event holds more significance than a birthday party.

Jonas expresses interest in Fiona (Chloe Michelle Fey), a girl of the same age. Mother soon thereafter explains to Jonas that he is experiencing his first “stirrings.” She advises him to take pills to quiet the stirrings. When asked how long he must take them, Mother replies, “Until you enter the House of the Old.”

As the Ceremony of 12 commences, we learn that a predominant purpose thereof is to assign the young their vocations. The exposition in the play unfolds with a riveting steadiness. Each scene offers a new disturbance about “The Community.” The children have no idea what jobs they will receive. The Chief Elder (Shelley Wyche) bequeaths Assistant Director of Recreation to Jonas’ friend Asher (Brandin Tolbert). Fiona receives Caretaker of the Old as her occupation.

The Chief Elder waits to announce Jonas’ assignment until the end of the ceremony. The Community gives him Receiver of Memory, a title both honorable and burdensome.

Enter Richard Alan Nichols, appropriately venerable as The Giver, the current Receiver of Memory.

This version of the future shows a society that has eradicated much of both the pleasure and pain of our current lives. The monochromatic set and costumes begin to make sense — another slow, enticing revelation. Nichols enters wearing the first hint of color, brown robes, nobly draped. Along with his first “stirrings,” Jonas sees his first color, a moment cleanly executed by Lighting Designer Art Kent. A gray apple turns red in his hands and he understands not what he sees. The Giver explains color, calls it “Seeing beyond.”

“Why did color disappear?” asks Jonas.

“We gave up color when we gave up sunshine,” answers the Giver.

The production’s sorrowful point literally brings a tear to the eye. “Love. Giver, I wish we still had that,” Jonas exclaims. He learns about love and soon thereafter tells Mother he loves her. She reprimands him with the question “Do you understand why it is inappropriate to use imprecise words like ‘love?’”

The Giver places his hands on Jonas and transmits memories to him. The society has forgotten and entrusts the Receiver of Memories to act as a human record keeper. Videographer Christine Taylor gives us detailed and heart-wrenching depictions, projected on the taupe wall, snow, a sleigh ride, sunshine and warfare.

Eliminating color, love, and sunshine also allowed for the end of pain and war. Lowry’s book suggests that true ecstasy lies in the encountering of all in our world, the pleasant and unpleasant, the tragedies and triumphs. If we lose one extreme, will we not also lose the other? The sobering sadness of this play comes from an overwhelming loss.

The cast and design elements contain no weak link. Coppage and Queen make a disturbing alloy of parental concern and science fiction neutrality with the roles of the parents. As a theatre for youth, the Coterie often employs local young people as actors, and Church coached specific, dynamic performances out of Fielder as Jonas, Fey as Fiona, Hall as Lily and Tolbert as Asher. Nichols plays the eponymous role with a weighted responsibility; you can see the encumbrance in his skin.

The Coterie mounts shows in a unique space. Part of the audience curves around one side of the stage so that a number of patrons view the stage from variant angles. Church has staged productions in this space for close to two decades, and his maturity reigns, clearly evident in the subtle sensitivity with which he sculpts the space with the actors. Some might call the Coterie space awkward. Perhaps in reality, the Coterie offers the world, literally and figuratively, many perspectives.

The Giver closes too soon, Feb. 25. It plays at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-474-6552 or go to

The Coterie’s next production is The Country of the Blind by Frank Higgins based on the story by H.G. Wells. It runs March 13 through April 1.

David Ollington can be contacted at


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