Powerful Holocaust drama on stage at Maine West
Deirdre Savaria and Spencer Armstrong, both of Des Plaines, are among some of Maine West High School's most experienced actors, having performed in musicals, comedies and the annual variety show all four years.
Yet, this year's spring play immersed them in something more serious: they are walking in the shoes of Holocaust survivors.
For the last six weeks, they have worked with an eight-member ensemble cast to mount the multimedia play, "And Then They Came for Me," by James Still.
"It's so powerful," says senior student director Eleni Tsoukatos of Des Plaines. "As soon as we did our first table reading, we knew it was something special."
The unique production combines videotaped interviews with survivors Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg — whom Savaria and Armstrong portray — with live theater, as Maine West actors recreate scenes from their lives during World War II.
"I like it because it focuses on survivors' stories," says Armstrong, who intends to study theater at Pace University in New York. "The whole experience has been so intense and challenging, and yet modern in how it is presented.
"I feel like my character is talking to me," Armstrong adds. "When I don't have the words to describe something, he does."
Holding their stories together are their separate bonds with Anne Frank, who is portrayed in the play by Catherine Bustos of Des Plaines. Silverberg was her first boyfriend, who walked her to school and is mentioned early in her diary.
Schloss was the same age as Anne Frank and they lived in the same apartment building in Amsterdam. Their families went into hiding the same day, and ultimately were betrayed. After the war, their connection deepened, when Frank's father, Otto, married Schloss' mother.
"I love how it's so interactive," says Savaria, who hopes to combine her theater interest with a special education degree at Illinois State University. "She's still alive and a real person, so I feel a real responsibility to portray her honestly."
She describes the rehearsals as intense, set on the stage where their scenes are blocked out on platforms etched in tape — and shaped in a swastika.
"My favorite part is when I'm talking to (Schloss)," Savaria says. "I turn to the screen and ask what's happening, why are they doing this to me. And she answers me."
The student actors saw the set for the first time last week. Designed by Technical Director Chris Jensen, it closes them in with a back wall filled with possessions taken from Schloss' and Silverberg's families by the Nazis, and mentioned in the play.
From Nazi propaganda posters, to a bicycle, typewriter and even a replica of a gate from one of the concentration camps, it helped to ground the actors even deeper in their period piece.
It's a play that is not widely done, says Director Britnee Ruscitti, but it gives audiences an honest portrayal of what Jewish families endured during the Holocaust.
"The students are asked to create these characters and give justice to their stories, while putting it in an artistic setting," Ruscitti says. "The video is what makes it unique. It adds so much and connects the actors with the real survivors.
"The stage is so often this fantasy world," she adds. "Here, the video grounds it in reality."
All of the students involved in the production, from the cast members to the crew, had to research their characters and the Holocaust before rehearsals began, Ruscitti says.
"Pretty soon there won't be any more Holocaust survivors," she says. "So, art has this incredible ability to reflect back and explore history in ways that allow us to continue to remember their stories."
Savaria sounds almost like the special education and theater teacher she hopes one day to be one day, when she says simply: "It's a teaching moment."
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