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Review: 'The Giver' at the Playhouse offers glimpse at dystopian future

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Omaha Performing Arts' 2022-2023 Broadway season will feature seven hit musical shows.

We all have times when we feel great joy over simple things: puppy kisses, a favorite song, a drive through the mountains that ends at the ocean.

We also have times of intense sorrow and physical pain.

“The Giver,” now at the Omaha Community Playhouse, shows us what life would be like if a committee of seemingly well-meaning leaders decided we shouldn’t experience any of that, along with other feelings that make life worth living, including the most important feeling of all.

The play, adapted by Eric Coble from a young adult novel by Lois Lowry, is set in the unnamed “community” over which the committee presides. The leaders choose mandatory vocations for every citizen, come up with draconian rules, diligently enforce them (sometimes with capital punishment) and control natural human emotions with drugs.

People live in family units, but “birth mothers” are responsible for populating the community. Children don’t know anything beyond the current generation — in fact, they’re totally unaware that grandparents exist.

One man, the Giver (played by Playhouse veteran Cork Ramer), holds all memories, both local and worldwide.

He has been keeping citizens from learning about history for a number of years, and is starting to feel guilty for his role in preventing community members from an honest appraisal of events that may help them understand and limit such scourges as war and hunger. (Does this sound familiar?)

When Jonas (Stella Clark-Kaczmarek) becomes his successor and student, the aging Giver begins to see hope for reversing the course of the community. Jonas has the ability to “see beyond” and, as he learns about such things as colors, the sun, the pain of injuring a limb and even armed conflict, he starts to question why everyone can’t know about everything.

At the tender age of 12, Jonas ponders why all memories — joyful, poignant, painful and loving — are the purview of only one person. He begins to realize that life is less meaningful without history, emotions and even suffering. And as he watches the fate of an innocent infant, he realizes that life is far more important than achieving the perfection the committee rigidly expects.

It gives the audience a lot to think about.

Guest director Lisa Kerekes and her mostly young cast have created a memorable production. The first thing you notice is the black-and-white projection on the rear wall, which anchors Matt Hamel’s simple set. Amelie Raoul designed the projections with Brittany Merenda as projection consultant and programmer. The show wouldn’t be the same without them.

Kerekes included a filmmaking curriculum in the production and young cast members created a film short that appears in the show. It’s well done and compelling.

Young Clark-Kaczmarek handles a difficult role with believability and grace. Ramer’s considerable skills and his deep authoritative voice make the Giver an imposing yet sympathetic — and tragic — character.

The entire youth ensemble also deserves praise, as do Giovanni Rivera as Father, Katy Kepler as Mother and Ree Davis-Stone as the Chief Elder, who gives off subtly sinister vibes as she cheerfully assigns each 12-year-old in the community to a lifetime career.

The night I saw it, a few set-change delays (performed by youth ensemble members) bogged it down a bit, but as a whole, it moved along well enough.

Futuristic gray costumes by Lindsay Pape and space-age music by Tim Vallier help us believe the community exists in a far-flung age. The program says only that the time signature is “soon.”

I’m not sure how to interpret that, although I have my theories. I do know that this play is tailor-made for serious discussions with young people about their visions for the future.

Grab your kids and see “The Giver” before it’s gone. Is “the community” just beyond the horizon? It’s up to them.

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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