You don’t usually think of existentialism in connection with children’s theater.
But Graham Whitehead, the Rose Theater’s guest director of “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse,” suggested to his design crew that it perfectly fit the play’s story of a child’s roller-coaster world of emotion.
Adapted by Kevin Kling from children’s books by Kevin Henkes, “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” focuses on the rough adjustment Lilly goes through when her baby brother is born and she is no longer the center of attention.
Worse, she brings her new purple plastic purse to school, the one Grammy got her, the one that plays music when you open it. Her teacher puts it away so it won’t distract the other students. Once again, Lilly is missing expected attention — and she behaves badly as a result. And then she feels bad about that.
Whitehead remembered his own daughter when she was Lilly’s age.
“Little kids, when they’re happy, there’s nothing but happiness,” he said. “And when they’re sad, it’s inconsolable despair. This script covers both those feelings.”
Existentialism is a philosophy about finding structure and meaning in life. Whitehead said children love stories like “Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse” because they make sense of confusing events.
When he shared this thought with scenic designer Ronnie Wells Jr. and lighting/sound designer Kyle Toth, they thought of a way to illustrate Lilly’s sudden shifts in emotional extremes.
“When Lilly gets banished to the Uncooperative Chair (like a timeout), Graham likened that to existential pain,” Wells said. “Everything in Lilly’s world is bright and vibrant. So when she gets put into timeouts, her world becomes black and white.”
It’s not a gradual or subtle change, Toth said. It’s like those strong mood swings children undergo. “It’s lavender and pink and yellow to black and white in one fell swoop.”
The timeout chair suggests the dreamlike melting clocks of a Salvador Dali painting or the “Game of Thrones” chair in which anyone who sits will go mad or die of excruciating pain.
That’s Lilly, and music is used to further accentuate those mood swings.
While children will understand the mood shift, the existential overtones can be appreciated in a different way by older audience members, Wells and Toth said.
“What we see as existential hell, a 5-year-old sees as a timeout,” Toth said. “We experience it the same. The world has ended. There’s no reason to go on.”
Whitehead said that in the end, the story is very joyful and loving, and a feeling of friendship dominates. But the play respects the difficult emotions children can experience.
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