By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Too rare is the transcendent theater experience. Now there is one in And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank, onstage at Dallas Children's Theater. In 90 minutes, this play does some extraordinary things, going beyond mere entertainment-with-a-message to offer true stories of the Holocaust told by and for young people.
The graceful style in which this production unfolds—the most shocking and horrifying moments revealed through subtle, abstract gestures—respects the tender hearts and impressionable minds of its intended audience. But make no mistake—this isn't a simplified history lesson. This is a beautiful play, beautifully acted, that has the power to connect with viewers of any age (though it is recommended for children 11-up).
James Still's script is based on memoirs by Eva Geiringer Schloss, who survived eight months in Auschwitz with her mother in 1944, and by Ed Silverberg, who as a teen escaped arrest by the Nazis and made a harrowing journey to safety. Both Eva and Ed were childhood friends of Anne Frank's. Their three families, all Jewish, had fled to the same Amsterdam neighborhood in the late 1930s. Ed at 16 had a fleeting crush on the flirtatious 13-year-old Anne, who later would write about him in her diary as the beloved boy she nicknamed "Hello."
Eva's connection to Anne Frank, who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, continued after the war when Eva's mother married Anne's widower father, Otto. Anne gets top billing but is actually a secondary character in And Then They Came for Me. Her spirit loomed large in Eva's life, especially after the published diary received worldwide attention. It is Anne's relationship to everyone in the play that provides the connecting threads in the tapestry.
Director Robyn Flatt's staging of this drama includes video interviews with Eva and Ed (updated for this production by SMU theater design student Thomas Charles LeGalley). Their straightforward recitation of events cuts in and out of what's happening onstage (and not always smoothly), with the actors portraying Eva and Ed's younger selves sometimes speaking in unison with the recordings. Despite a few technical hiccups, the multimedia stuff is good. Whatever we think we know about the Holocaust from all those hours in front of the History Channel, there's more to be learned by hearing again what really happened, told in plain words by those it really happened to.
That's a compelling reason to see And Then They Came for Me before May 12. Eva Schloss, who now lives in London, is at DCT in person until then to take part in question and answer sessions after performances and to sign copies of her new book, The Promise. She turns 80 on May 11—65 years to the day after she and her family were arrested by the Nazis and sent on cattle cars to death camps in Poland.
The presence of Eva, who travels several times a year to see and participate in productions of her story, adds something profoundly moving to the experience. But even without her, this somber but ultimately inspirational piece has great merit, if only for its reminder that there were children other than Anne Frank, more than a million, in fact, who were murdered by the Nazis.
These testimonies also say so much about the human will to survive against impossible odds. What was the chance, after all, that young Eva, discovering that the German guards had abandoned Auschwitz in advance of the British army, would wander over to the men's barracks and run smack into her old neighbor, Otto Frank? That's what happened, in a turn of plot no playwright could get away with.
A small ensemble has to take on many roles in this narrative-laden one-act. Chamblee Ferguson, familiar to local theatergoers as Bob Cratchit in Dallas Theater Center's annual Christmas Carol, portrays several fathers, including Eva's, then appears in full Nazi uniform for a terrifying interrogation scene. There's something truly chilling in that. He's just an actor in a black costume and tall black boots, but suddenly he represents evil marching in to destroy the young families whose heartrending stories we've been absorbing.
Playing both Eva and Ed's mothers is Lynn Blackburn, a lovely actress with big, expressive eyes that overflow with real tears several times. She's given strong support by Andrew Bourgeois (as young Ed), Jason Thomas Mayfield (Ed's father, among others), Chase Fisher and Presley Oldham (as Hitler youth).
As Eva, 18-year-old Hockaday student Pam Covington shows once again why she's one of this town's finest actors, young or old. She's starred at DCT in To Kill a Mockingbird and The Miracle Worker, and she gets better in each new role. (She alternates with Evelyn Roberts in this production.)
Katy Tye, playing Anne Frank at the performance reviewed (alternating with Rachel Rosenstein), looks eerily like the archival images of thin, pale Anne projected on the screens above her. When she hugs her little plaid-covered diary at the end of the play, it's clutch-the-throat time.
DCT's resident designer Randel Wright has interpreted all of it with evocative and provocative images in his scenery. Long, wide white lace panels, reminiscent of the old-fashioned "nets" used in European homes, rise at one point to reveal a stark black wall studded with hundreds of white skulls. The final scene fades into a galaxy of tiny, glowing lights. They might be candles honoring the millions of souls lost to the horror of the Holocaust, or flickers of hope that when the Evas and Eds are no longer around to share their stories, productions like this will bear witness on their behalf.