Many people think of theater as pure entertainment, but what transpires on the stage in the course of a play can also spark a discussion about important issues.
That is what Jeanne Klein hopes will happen after seeing Theatre for Young People's production of "Afternoon of the Elves," an adaptation of Janet Taylor Lisle's award-winning children's book.
"There are few plays that deal with child poverty and this one deals with it in an elegant way," said Klein, a Kansas University associate professor of theater and director of the play.
"Afternoon of the Elves" will be presented to fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in Douglas County schools at 1 p.m. Monday through Friday in Crafton-Preyer Theatre in Murphy Hall. A public performance will be 7 p.m. Saturday.
The play is about 11-year-old Sara Kate, who is considered weird and shunned by a clique of girls. Hillary, a 9-year-old who lives next door to Sara Kate, becomes intrigued with Sara Kate's dilapidated house and a magical elf village in her back yard.
When Hillary goes over to Sara Kate's house to see the elf village, she discovers that Sara Kate is poor and secretly has been caring for her ill mother so that social welfare authorities will not separate them. Sara Kate fears that her mother will be sent to a medical institution and she'll be sent to a foster home.
Klein said the elves who are strong, invisible and band together are metaphors for the poor. She hopes that the play helps audience members reexamine their own views about the economically disadvantaged.
"Just because you're poor doesn't mean you're unhappy or a bad person. It just means you live in a particular economic situation," Klein said. "Just because you're poor doesn't mean you're of any less valuable as a human being."
A play about a child living in poverty is relevant to Douglas County, Klein said. Last school year, 27 percent of all K-12 students took part in free or reduced-price lunch programs. A recent Kansas University survey indicated that 9.3 percent of Douglas County residents below the age of 65 are without health insurance.
Klein said the play's scenic design, by Elinor Parker, reflects the differences in Sara Kate's and Hillary's lives. Sara Kate's back yard is overgrown and invites a child's imagination. Hillary's yard is manicured and square.
"Sara Kate nurtures herself with creativity and imagination, and that's what keeps her alive," Klein said. "Hillary conforms to fashion and what others think. She's not being her own person or expressing her own individuality."
The production of "Afternoon of the Elves" is dedicated to the memory of the late Sally Six Hersh, a KU theater alumna and longtime theater teacher at West Junior High School. Hersh helped start the children's theater program at KU in 1954.