There is a lot in Danny, King of the Basement, at Seattle Children's Theatre, that many of the kids who will watch the play have not experienced firsthand: Homelessness; deadbeat parents; hunger.
Parents of kids fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with these difficult things often struggle to explain them in ways that really impact children.
“People are starving,” many parents say when our kids won’t eat their dinner. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” is the shorthand that we hope makes a satisfactory lesson out of “no.”
As kids grow they might begin to understand struggle better even if they do not encounter too much of it, especially if giving and helping others is a part of their family and community culture. But true empathy and understanding is challenging to teach.
How can a play teach about the hardest things in a way sometimes even parents cannot?
The secret to Danny, King of the Basement, a story with serious themes recommended for kids 8 and older, is the universal key that connects all children no matter their social or economic realities: Imagination.
Danny (Quinn Armstrong) is a young boy who has had a rough life, the low points of which are not concealed or softened for the audience: He’s moved nine times in two years; his mom Louise (Deborah King) selects men who never turn out to be “Prince Charming,” has trouble holding down a job, and though she obviously loves him she also makes promises more easily than she keeps them; Danny must keep and count the family’s money, which is often too tight for a solid meal; and later in the story Danny reveals that he has a secret problem of his own.
Yet despite all this, Danny is an optimist. He gets by with his colorful imagination, turning the hardest parts of his life into a game where he is a secret agent, always waiting for the next mission. It’s fun to watch Danny making fun from anything, and his creativity and inventiveness are captivating counterbalances to life’s grim difficulties.
When Danny and his mother escape her boyfriend and move into a cold basement apartment, Danny meets and eventually become friends with Angelo (Ben McFadden) and Penelope (Hana Lass), two neighbors who also have less-than-ideal home lives.
None of the characters in Danny are sugar-coated: Mothers and fathers are divorcing and fighting, unemployed and angry, struggling and lonely. Kids are neglected, acting out, and hungry for both food and love.
Yet despite the realistic portrayal of struggles, the story is never too hard because it is told through the eyes of the children. It goes right up to the line of what kid viewers can handle, but never crosses over.
This complexity of character is part of what makes the script and the production so successful, and it also means that the story really is appropriate only for second or third graders and above. I often bring my 5-year-old along to anything my 7-year-old can see, and I consider both kids seasoned story consumers. But I was glad, watching Penelope juggle her screaming parents over the cell phone and Angelo’s father roaring like a dinosaur, that I didn’t bring her this time.
A particularly poignant scene comes early on, when Danny and his mom, arriving at their new apartment, only have $6.98 for dinner. Danny wishes for chicken or meat, but he knows their money will buy only eggs and potatoes. On opening night of the production, the audience was silent, collective breath held, as we really absorbed what it feels like to go without. For many children, watching Danny try to make the best of his disappointment is the first time they will understand hunger. With tears in my own eyes, I could literally see the wheels turning in my daughter’s head, the heaviness of Danny’s reality clicking.
As the story moves along and Danny makes friends with his neighbors, they begin to help and confide in each other. Watching these bonds form there is both a palpable sense of relief along with a growing unease: Will these kids be OK, everyone wonders?
The concepts dealt with are certainly mature, and the weight of these kids’ lives is absorbed through the script, the dim yet somehow still cozy set, and the melancholy but subtly hopeful music.
No one’s problems disappear entirely at the end. But there is much resilience, redemption, and hope in friendship, and that is the ultimate lesson for kids in Danny.
If you go . . .
When: Danny, King of the Basement, runs through Nov. 18, 2012. Thursday-Friday shows at 7 p.m.; Saturdays 2 and 5:30 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Where: Seattle Children’s Theatre at the Seattle Center
Tickets and information: SCT.org