Paul Herbig and Richard Altmanshofer in "Donnie and the Monsters"

Kids live in a world full of problems. Who can help? Mom and dad have their own problems. Heck, sometimes they are the problem. Best friends are fickle, especially in those crucial years between the halcyon innocence of deep childhood and the flowering of full adolescence. Tell your friend a shameful secret in confidence, and when school starts again after summer break, your best friend has a new best friend, and the whole class is sniggering about you behind your back. You might as well tell your troubles to Mr. Chips, your fat, black lab, the soul of patience, or a sock puppet. At least Mr. Chips won’t talk back.

Donnie is a kid in school, and his troubles are all too familiar. His mother works full time, and his father is, he says, “out of the picture.” He doesn’t have any real friends, other than the kindly old woman who watches him after school, and he has a some very real enemies, the kind that can drive a kid to desperation. Donnie’s nemesis is Tommy, a bully who calls Donnie a “butt nugget” and threatens to rape him if he ever finds a chance to get Donnie alone. To help him get by Donnie creates imaginary friends, including us, the audience, a wandering pirate on a quest to find his nemesis, a monster who lives under the bed, and a sneaky sock puppet who resembles the serpent from the garden of Eden.

To make matters worse, Tommy’s mother is Donnie’s mother’s boss. And when the kindly elderly lady who babysits Donnie after school dies, Donnie’s mom asks Tommy’s mom if Donnie can stay at Tommy’s house until she can pick him up after work. Donnie is faced with his first existential dilemma: go to Tommy’s house and be abused mentally and physically, or rebel and risk getting mom fired from her job. Either way you end up dead. Donnie asks his imaginary friends for advice, and you might be surprised by who ends up saving him. But I won’t give away the ending.

“Donnie and the Monsters” is a charming play about the adultness of childhood problems, and the child’s process of working into adulthood. Robert Gibbs, the playwright, mixes the visceral imagination and awareness of a child with the vocabulary and insight of an adult to skillfully capture how it feels to be on the cusp of understanding the great mysteries of life: sex, death, honor and betrayal. Heidi Grumelot has done an excellent job staging the fantasies of a “‘tween” boy’s world, and the cast brings the text to life with ingenuous energy.

Richard Altmanshofer and Paul Herbig (in the picture above) are particularly good in their roles. Mr. Altmanshofer is an icon of childhood sincereity, and Mr. Herbig is chillingly effective as the sociopathic Tommy and the evil, seductive sock puppet. Theater goers will also appreciate the clever, back-to-basics design elements of the play. Elaine Jones deserves a special mention as the puppet / light designer.

If the collective imagination of children is the battlefield between Good and Evil, “Donnie and the Monsters” is its climactic battle. Who wins? Find out at Under St. Marks, from now until September 18th.