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The vague and threatening world of "Gathering Blue" is established almost immediately when a swarm of angry women try to throw an orphan girl into the "bone fields" to be devoured by beasts, an unanticipated beginning for a story that's ultimate message is one of hope.

The Department of Theatre's "Occupy Empathy" season continued with "Gathering Blue," a play by Eric Coble adapted from the book of the same title written by Lois Lowry. Some readers may be familiar with Lowry's "The Giver," a staple of many middle school English curricula. "Gathering Blue" is a companion story to that more well-known novel.

The play centers on Kira, a girl with a twisted leg and a talent for weaving who has recently been orphaned and left to face a dystopian world in which those who cannot work are left to die. It is a solid choice for the Miami's "Occupy Empathy" theatre season, challenging its audience to reflect on themes such as disability in society, the individual against a community and the power of art in selectively recording and shaping a civilization's history.

These ideas are important, and while the show introduced them aptly, the overall style of "Gathering Blue" was a little too on the nose, suggesting that the story is better suited to its original audience of middle school students than to a college theatre production.

Despite that awkward audience fit, the show was certainly enjoyable and thought-provoking. The partnership between the Miami student actors and those of the youth ensemble (seven young actors pulled from local elementary and middle schools) was wonderful to witness. It is always refreshing to see actual children playing roles meant for children and I applaud the Department of Theatre for trusting the young actors to handle the subject matter, which they accomplished handily.

Annie Mallamaci played the equal-parts naive and courageous Kira winningly, and Rylan Hixson provided comic relief as Matt while managing to somehow navigate the odd grammar and syntax of his lines -- such as, "I be bringing you two gifties" -- charmingly. Eight-year-old Naomi Wanko was delightful as Jo, the singer-in-training.

The production featured a minimalist set of geometric blocks that were ingeniously maneuvered during the show to differentiate between spaces. The lighting and costumes were gorgeous and eye-catching, crucial for a show in which color is so important. The green light dappling the simplistic set pieces suspended from the ceiling perfectly mimicked foliage and later a multicolored tapestry.

Lighting designer Marly Wooster described her goal as "seeking to illuminate the feelings of Kira and to demonstrate her journey, not just through space and time, but also through the messy emotions and challenges of life."

"Gathering Blue" is an invitation to recognize our own individual power to change society for the better, a compassionate call-to-arms in today's divided world.

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