OVIEDO — There’s a tendency among us “serious” community theater folks to shun high school productions, perhaps with the mistaken impression that it’s going to be something quaint, thoroughly unprofessional, and valued mainly by parents cheering on their teens. You know how us highbrow types don’t have time for that.
High school theater departments would no doubt beg to differ, and insist that with dedicated drama teachers and students who have developed a passion for acting and delivering a powerful story to the audience, they’re just as capable as any professional theater company of doing extraordinarily good work.
Hey, and guess what — they’re right.
A striking example of that goes to the theater department at Hagerty High School, where their PureBred Productions team of director Trevor Southworth and his very gifted student performers spent this weekend delivering a searing production of the Holocaust drama “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Performed in the Hagerty High auditorium, the vast stage lent itself quite well to the set design of the Amsterdam attic where Anne Frank and her family hid with other fleeing Jews from the Nazis. The set included multiple rooms and even the stairs leading to the roof, where the kids could spend some time away from the adults.
But perhaps most impressive is that the entire cast was played by students: teens who managed to transcend their ages and create fully-realized adults — and children. Not once did this production feel amateurishly quaint, and there’s no better example of that then the superb performances by Vangeli Tsompanidis, who played the senior Otto Frank, the man who tries so hard to be the calm voice of reason throughout their ordeal, and Emily Canamella, who gives us an Anne Frank who is precocious, sometimes hyper, often petulant and sulking, and sadly all too aware of just how horrific their fate will be if they get caught. Both actors did a remarkable job creating believable, fully fleshed out characters well beyond their years.
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” of course, was the journal that young Anne Frank kept while she was in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. The family was caught in 1944, and Anne Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 — just days before it was liberated by the Allies.
The diary was found Miep Gies, the woman who arranged to hide the Franks, and she later gave it to Otto, the only member of the Frank family to survive the concentration camps. He arranged for it to be published in 1947, and the book inspired the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that Hagerty High revived this weekend, using a 1997 revision by Wendy Kesselman.
The play follows the Frank family as they settle into the annex along with the Van Daan family and, later, a local dentist, Mr. Dussel, who ends up sharing a room with young Anne. In the early scenes, the claustrophobia of that attic, as well as the intense stress of the Nazi’s Final Solution beyond its walls, wears on the adults, who squabble constantly. When Anne and the Van Dann’s son Peter act like, well, children, it often drives the adults crazy.
What’s particularly effective about these scenes is the audiences’ knowledge of how it will end: it can seem maddening that they’re fighting over such petty matters considering what eventually happens. There’s no stronger and more potent moment than when Mrs. Van Daan, portrayed so effectively by Cassidy Smith, fumes in anger when her husband insists they sell her most prized possession, a fur coat passed down by her family. Her desire to keep this family air-loom, and her husband’s desire to raise more money, seems absurdly pointless when the death trains loom horribly in their near future.
And one of the most emotionally intense aspects of the play, handled in a very gripping manner by the Hagerty team, is when the buzzer signals that Miep is arriving; you never knew if she will bring good news — such as delivering more food to the starving families — or bad. And the ending, where the adults sit at the dinner table having a rare moment of quiet and happiness …. as two SS agents quietly and ominously walk in, is still devastating to watch.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a painful chapter in history, and this is not an easy play to watch. But there’s no question this didn’t feel at all like a play thrown together by some teens without a full understanding of what makes a drama capable of deeply moving an audience.
The Hagerty production was actually a great testament to both the teaching profession, and to those teens committed to the very delicate craft of stage acting.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..