The production brings Anne Frank's friends to life.
Anne Frank is probably the best-known Holocaust victim. She is remembered for her youth, her hopeful diary and her enduring faith in humanity's goodness, all of which contrast the dark reality of the Nazi genocide.
While much is known about Anne, less is known of those around her. The new Children's Theater of Madison production, And Then They Came for Me (through March 17 at Overture Center's Playhouse), brings to life some of the other names and faces from Anne's world.
Two characters anchor the show: Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg. They aren't fictional characters, but real friends of Anne's prior to her hiding in the Secret Annex and eventual death in a concentration camp. The show uses documentary footage of Schloss and Silverberg, who are now old and able to relate their stories in a fuller historical context.
Alistair Sewell and Elizabeth Robbins play young Ed and Eva. While the whole ensemble is a high-quality, well-knit group, Sewell and Robbins give standout performances that brim with youthful sincerity. At times, the two actors echo the words of their real-life counterparts. At other times, they interact, from stage to screen. When young Eva arrives at Auschwitz, she asks her older self some difficult, disbelieving questions. Yes, the elder Eva tells her, she will have to stand outside for hours on end. No, she will not be able to move. If she does, she will be beaten, or worse.
The subject matter may seem too harsh for children, but playwright James Still provides an intelligent entry point into a profoundly difficult history. (The show is not recommended for children ages 8 and younger.) Director Roseann Sheridan writes in the program that millions of Holocaust children experienced "a loss of childhood." Victims lost the most, but Still demonstrates through one character named Hitler Youth that Nazi children also lost something: their own humanity.
As affecting as the cast and script is Mike Lawler's set. Based heavily upon Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it is composed of disjointed black squares of various heights. They represent the chaotic unevenness of life. The squares resemble buildings as well as tombstones. At times, they also seem like countries. The characters seek refuge in them, always hoping they'll be safe where they land, until finally they can escape no more. Jason Fassl's lighting design enhances what unfolds onstage and brings yet another layer to the production.
Following the show, CTM provides an interactive dialogue with cast and invited guests, led by dramaturg Lindsey Hoel-Neds. The aim is to deepen the experience and provide further entry into Anne's world. An accompanying lobby exhibit offers additional information about the characters, the Holocaust and survivors that settled here in Madison.
And Then They Came for Me is a rich evening of theater that successfully blends documentary and dialogue for children and their families.