Stormy seas

God bless the children who attended the same Saturday matinee performance of The Yellow Boat that I did. During a question-and-answer session after the show, they demonstrated that you don't just lose your innocence when you become an adult--if you're not careful, you can also shed a certain clear, tough inquisitiveness.

The little darlings cut through the bullshit to interrogate a certain Dr. Lloyd Kitchens. The poor schmo was designated to answer whatever the children might ask about AIDS, the subject of David Saar's eloquent ode to his eight-year-old son. Try as he might to do the euphemism tango through questions like "How do people get AIDS?" and "What kind of people get AIDS?" the bottom-line inquiries flew fast and hard.

This was a laudable public exchange between kids and a physician about a dangerous virus that's often transmitted sexually. Still, you wouldn't expect it to take place in Dallas, much less a Dallas children's theater, much less the Dallas Children's Theater. You may remember that DCT made national headlines a couple years ago when one of its patrons complained about an onstage interracial kiss; the idiot was (briefly) mollified before the flame of national coverage got so hot that the kiss was restored.

So put yourself in Dr. Kitchens' shoes as he described how "abnormally close activities" can infect you with HIV, and how a certain male French flight attendant was the first to spread it "from one side of the country to the other," although "it" began in a "male population in San Francisco." I took issue with the accuracy of some of these characterizations, since many of the earliest U.S. AIDS cases have been traced to individuals who never met Gaetan "Patient Zero" Dugas, and since a few also predate the early '80s explosion of AIDS cases in San Francisco. More than frustration, though, I felt sympathy and a little perverse glee; you could almost hear the roar of sweat down this man's temples in anticipation of questions like "What kind of abnormally close activities?" and "How did the flight attendant spread it?" Sadly, they never came.

In the end, David Saar's The Yellow Boat transcended the sad, silly politics that have attached themselves to the stubborn HIV virus--thanks in large part to an energetic cast who tread nimbly over the tragedy of the death of a child, Saar's son Benjamin. The reality yanks enough tears without applying the details in heavy strokes. Besides, kids haven't lived long enough to need artificial sentimentality, and playwright David Saar has managed to subdue the specter of his own grief in service to a disciplined script that engages kids and adults. In the end, the play is as smart, imaginative, and challenging as its hero.

Benjamin Saar, who succumbed to HIV-related illness in 1987, contracted the virus from plasma treatments he received in the mid-'80s for his hemophilia. As written by his father and played without a hint of self-consciousness by adult actor Derik Webb, Benjamin is a sweetly recognizable kid--moody, impatient, and thrilled to be alive in a way few grown-ups will ever feel again. He's a bit of a brooder, but focused enough to translate his feelings into explosively colorful crayon pictures (the real Benjamin's artwork is projected onto two large screens on either side of the stage).

His muse is ignited by the doctors (Bruce Hermans, Jenci Pavageaux, Amy Shoults, and Chad Vanlandingham) who poke, prod, and puncture him under the helpless gaze of his parents (Leslie Alexander and John M. Hallum, whose roles, written as handwringing Everyparents, are the weak link here). First it's hemophilia, then HIV. Ostracized by other parents and depressed, Benjamin takes refuge in drawing. Author David Saar transfers the boats, undersea creatures, and adventurers in Benjamin's pictures and turns each medical ordeal into a mythological test of courage, each human connection a victory.

Adults who dread the thought of maintaining a "this really is for children of all ages" smile throughout a kids' play should know that The Yellow Boat might just surprise them with its gutsiness--it introduces life's most important questions, then has the audacity not even to try and answer them. If you're still bored, don't sweat--it clocks in at under 75 minutes, most of which can be well spent trying to figure out how these kids are processing the play.

Although childless myself, I remember from my own not-too-distant grade-school years that the playground population can be divided into two groups--those whose youth makes them feel invincible, and others who seem hyperaware of their own vulnerability as little ones and as human beings.

This split was reflected in the youthful audience at The Yellow Boat (average age, eight or nine), the majority of whom dipped in and out of being involved with the story. The rest were visibly haunted by the play's stark depiction of the loneliness during a long-term hospital stay and the fear of dying. Benjamin's final moments are depicted with heartbreaking detail (his labored breathing is relaxed by raising his arms "to try and touch the star") and, at the climactic moment, graceful metaphor.

If there's one combination that makes Americans more nervous than sexuality and children, it's mortality and children. I can pontificate endlessly about ignorant parents shielding their children from important realities, but at the start of my life I got no small joy from a devout belief in Santa Claus. Maybe the special thing about childhood is that you can make it a place where some important realities don't have to cast shadows.

Childhood was a precious commodity to Benjamin, who subsisted on tiny crumbs of it the last few years of his life. He clung to his artwork like it was his last bowl of nourishment. Though it will flare again and again with each production, The Yellow Boat is the last colorful spark this firecracker ever sprayed, so the mood is pointedly mournful. Parents and guardians, be advised--while reserved in tone, The Yellow Boat explicitly addresses the separation of parent and child through death.

During the question and answer session, a girl in front of me who'd cried a little asked Dr. Kitchens, "Did Benjamin die?" I couldn't tell if she didn't understand the significance of Benjamin's final voyage on his sailboat, or just didn't want to believe it.

If the last part was true, she shared this with me, and probably the playwright. The Yellow Boat is a sturdy piece of stagecraft that carries a cargo of yearning from our mortal world straight up to the sun. We can't look at that place in the sky; we need artists to describe it for us. Through the able efforts of the Dallas Children's Theater, David and Benjamin render it beautifully.

The Yellow Boat runs through March 23. Call 978-0110.

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Jimmy Fowler