The Seattle Children's Theatre production "Danny, King of the Basement" by David S. Craig (through Nov. 18, 2012) gives young audiences a thoughtful yet entertaining look into the lives of kids facing homelessness and poverty.
How to talk candidly to young folk about homelessness and poverty without being too scary or preachy?
Canadian playwright David S. Craig approaches the task in “Danny, King of the Basement” with a balance of humor, pathos and boisterous fantasy.
In the end, the play is more after-school special than Dickensian exposé. Yet it succeeds in entertaining middle-schoolers while compassionately depicting challenges many children cope with daily, and silently.
The Seattle Children’s Theatre’s engaging, buoyantly acted staging by Rita Giomi takes us by streetcar (neat effect, in Carol Wolfe Clay’s nifty set design) to the new home of Danny (appealing Quinn Armstrong) and his mom, Louise (Deborah King).
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The attractive Toronto triplex, cleverly angled so we can see the entryways to all three living quarters, is one of many abodes this hard-strapped, unemployed single mom and her bright son have occupied recently.
The details of their move-in are telling: Danny’s personal possessions fit into a small grocery cart. He’s hungry, and there’s only $7 left for groceries. When he doles out the money to his mom, bill by bill and coin by coin, Danny urges her not to blow it on cigarettes — because it’s smoke, or starve.
These details are revealed through interactions, as are the circumstances of the two other kids who live there. Spoiled, spunky Penelope (Hana Lass) wears fancy clothes and has two cellphones. She’s upper-class, but her welfare suffers as her estranged parents war over money.
Angelo (Ben McFadden) has an angry, unemployed father he can never please. (In one of several whimsical strokes, the dad isn’t seen but is heard roaring like a dragon.)
Danny offers his new friends an escape into fantasy games where they can be superheroes and special agents, and use imagination to control their fates and block negative thoughts.
This could have been a clunky therapeutic device, but the actors, playing kids of about middle-school age, tackle humorous, lively creative play with crowd-pleasing gusto.
“Danny, King of the Basement” also shows the downside of youthful bravado, and illustrates that seemingly unflappable kids (attention, adults!) suffer when forced to take over the adult role from a distracted or flaky parent.
You could tell the audience at a recent matinee, despite some squirming, was plugged into the story during a post-play discussion with lots of participation. They were asked,”If you could just bring one thing to a new home, what would it be? (“My cat.” “Food.”)
And what helps you get rid of your own negative thoughts? “I bang my head on the table,” a child said. It made you wonder: What is the life of that little girl like?
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org