Sunday, January 19, 2014

IRT focuses on Anne Frank and some never-to-be-forgotten lessons

The final scene of James Still's "And Then They Came for Me" at IRT.
Some events that will always be worth careful study also need to be examined through other kinds of presentation. That's what "And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank" accomplishes in focusing dramatically on a few young persons' experience of the Nazi regime's systematic slaughter of European Jews in World War II.

Indiana Repertory Theatre opened its third presentation (the other two were the 1996 premiere and 2005) of James Still's multimedia play this weekend on the Upperstage.

Still, the IRT's playwright in residence, effectively incorporates videotaped personal testimony from two Holocaust survivors in a dramatic presentation of their stories. Both of them briefly knew Anne Frank in Amsterdam after German armies had occupied the Netherlands.

Thus, "And Then They Came for Me" is grounded in its links to the most famous Holocaust story. When he was Helmuth Silberberg, Ed Silverberg knew Anne as a teen until the Frank family went into hiding. Eva Geiringer (now Schloss), an Austrian girl whose family escaped to Amsterdam after the Anschluss, was slightly acquainted with her as a schoolgirl in the Dutch capital.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a memory play, ending with something even stronger — a tableaulike, candlelit memorial to persecuted, hounded, tortured and exterminated European Jewry.  But it is seen through the lens of youthful promise and hope snuffed out by an evil regime.

Courtney Sale, IRT's new associate artistic director, keeps the emotional scale intimate, even as it reflects outward on a continent-wide scenario of suffering and, sometimes, survival against overwhelming odds.

Jennifer Johansen and Elizabeth Hutson
The energy that resists thwarting but rises to the occasion when needed — typical of youth at its best — is captured memorably in the performances of Elizabeth Hutson as Eva and Joseph Mervis as Helmuth. And making the almost saintly figure of Anne Frank engaging in her relationship to Eva and Helmuth was Zoe Turner in a vivacious performance. The fourth young actor, Weston LeCrone, cast a spell of personalized uneasiness over the stage as a Hitler Youth, and also came up to the mark as Eva's brother, Heinz.

The two adult roles, vividly contrasted as the parents of Eva and Helmuth, were taken by Mark Goetzinger and Jennifer Johansen. The mother-daughter rapport between Johansen and Hutson in extreme circumstances was performed with a moving poise between stoicism and desperation.

The set, with its light-shadow contrasts evoking newsreel footage and the sharpness of memory, was dominated by a set of railroad tracks, severely foreshortened, which functioned as a symbol of forced departure to the death camps and the occasional route of escape from that fate.

Over that severe terrain, the cast aptly re-created school and home scenes in the characters' moments of fleeting freedom as well as the privation, seclusion and imprisonment that engulfed them. Screens above the stage focus mainly on interviews with the articulate Ed Silverberg and Eva Schloss. Their even-toned testimony is effectively set against the anxiety and terror of the events as they unfolded in these lives and so many others' a relatively short time ago. As that time recedes, it will remain important to evoke it in such a form as "And Then They Came for Me."