Among the backdrop of Nazis, violence, prostitution, death and concentration camps, Candace Frank led the drama class at Lee High School in a performance as Fania Feneolon in Arthur Miller's "Playing for Time."
Frank's parents were in the audience at the first viewing on Jan. 17 and talked about their daughter in the lead role.
"I thought she was going to be overwhelmed, but she wasn't. It's a pretty serious role," her mother, Wallene Frank, said.
Bernie Frank said the seriousness of the subject matter was a lesson in itself.
"I think it's important for the kids to realize how cruel humans can be to one another," he said.
The play was about a group of Jewish and Polish people who were thrown into a rail car during World War II and shipped off to a concentration camp, which turned out to be Auschwitz. Feneolor was a musician who was part of the camp band, and in the end, that saved her from the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
The opening scene had them in a train car, with the click-clack of the tracks as they traveled through the countryside, destination unknown. Dialogue and actions, especially their hunger or the reaction to the overflowing waste receptacle, emphasized the miserable conditions.
"I'm half Jewish. I never really thought about it, though," Fania said to another woman she befriended.
There was camp brutality, starvation, shaving heads and trading sexual favors for food as well.
Amber Miller played an SS guard, prancing on the stage in goose-step fashion as she barked out orders. Her red swastika armband was larger than life. She talked about differentiating her character from real life.
"It was a challenge to be a Nazi. Some of the scenes on stage were difficult to work up to, those are my friends," she said.
Elizabeth Hebert, 15, played a "kapo," which were Jewish citizens that helped the guards around the camp for preferential treatment. Hebert is Jewish.
"It's not an anti-Semitic play. It actually happened, you have to accept that. My aunt's father and brother were killed in the Holocaust," she said.
Elizabeth Kost played Alma Rosa, the conductor.
"This play has a lot of personal stories in it and how people react under dire circumstances," she said. "It's very depressing, it had an impact on me."
Throughout the three-hour play, imagery was used to show that the characters were people too, despite being soldiers or sell-outs.
Matt Berger played Capt. Heinz, a loud, pushy guard. He tried not to be stiff and evil, he said.
"I have to portray a person. There is that part of him that was evil, but he also was a person, too," he said.
Other characters were a stuffy commandant, played by Zach Arnold; Dr. Mengele, played by Michael Southee; and Fraulein Mandel, played by Ashley Schultz. Six-year-old Vanessa Ruiz, a student from Saratoga Elementary School, was enlisted to play Lasislaus.
Director Trena Weiss-Null noted the students' threshold for touchy subjects.
"I don't think people give high-school age credit for what they are able to handle," she said.
Sixteen-year-old Chrissy Kulenguski was in the audience for the initial viewing.
"To see this in the form of a play is moving," she said.
The show went on the road to Radford University the weekend of Jan. 19 and 20 for the Virginia Theater Conference, before returning to Lee on Thursday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m.; Friday, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Jan. 26, at 8 p.m.