Back behind the stage at Signature Theatre, in a windowless rehearsal room, seven high school students have spent afternoons getting a taste of theater life. Lit only by fluorescent lights, the mirrored walls are hung with sheets of soundproofing foam; the only props are four gold-painted chairs.
While they’ve come to the theater wearing jeans and haircuts from 2004 America, the teens have been speaking a Mittel European dialogue, and learning to say the Kaddish — the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Every year, Signature Theatre casts students from nearby Wakefield High School in a play written by Norman Allen, one of Signature’s two education directors and director of the productions.
Preparations for the run of “In the Lion’s Den,” this year’s production for Signature in the Schools, have been sobering, say the Wakefield students involved, and they’ve gone well beyond what’s been taught in the classroom.
Allen’s play tells the story of a Christian woman in Nazi Germany. Horrified by her daughter’s allegiance with the Hitler Youth, the woman goes into hiding in the ghetto to save a Jewish boy.
The weight of the subject means the acting in “In the Lion’s Den” must be better than the typical high school play. “We’re not doing a melodrama, we’re doing reality,” Allen told his actors in a rehearsal last week. “Every now and then, things got very dramatic. It can all … come down.”
<b>SIGNATURE’S STUDENT ACTORS</b> said that Allen’s play was an eye-opener about the Holocaust. Allen selected the subject of the Holocaust to tie in with Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” the Holocaust survivor’s autobiographical novel about his experiences in the concentration camps.
“At school, we learn probably two weeks of stuff: ‘Oh, the Nazis are bad,’” said Nahid Koohkanrizi. “We don’t learn any of this.”
Even for Siam Fuentes, a World War II history buff, acting in “Lion’s Den” is a new way to look at that history: from the inside out. “If you can act and get involved in the action, you can get a better understanding of how people suffered, and how they went through this.”
“We rarely focus on the individual lives,” said Chris Mueller, or on “how people react.”
Before rehearsals began — in fact, before the play was fully written — Allen and Marcia Gardner, Signature’s other education director, took the students to the District’s Holocaust Museum. The students lingered over recordings of Holocaust survivors and pictures of camp prisoners.
“It was amazing how much time they took,” said Allen. “They were so enrapt.”
That visit imposed a sense of responsibility, said Wakefield student Amanda Adams. “For the sake of the millions involved, we have to be really accurate.”
Current events also colored students’ views, said Gardner. “There’s a lot of war around. So I think they were receptive to looking at the reasons for it, and how it effects certain people.”
<b>LOOKING AT THE WAR</b> through the eyes of a Christian woman may defy audience expectations about a Holocaust story, said Allen. “I wanted to avoid the old-hat. I didn’t know how to approach this subject; it was very daunting.”
Using a Christian as the main character was unexpected for the student actors, said Joey Firman, himself Jewish. “It’s a different point of view. Not to trivialize the millions of Jews who died, but it was not only Jews who lost their children,” he said.
The play also offers some insight as to how the Holocaust could happen, how the German country looked at it, said Koohkanrizi. “You understand, they thought it was right.”
It’s also become clear that the country wasn’t just Nazis and Jews, said Laura Downes. “You have the Hitler youth, Nazi-supporting families, but also people who think it’s wrong and they should do something, but they’re not sure what,” she said.
<b>IN THE PLAY,</b> the main character takes in Daniel, a Jewish boy, and goes to live in the ghetto with him and “lives a Jewish life,” said Allen. She tries to keep up the boy’s spirits as they watch more and more Jews rounded up, and come to the realization that they are dying.
With that realization, the characters start reciting the Kaddish more and more, for the millions killed in the camps.
“The Kaddish is a line through the play,” said Allen.
It has meant more than just rote memorization of lines for his student actors. “It gives us a sense that we are going to be saying these words that Jews said, and still say,” said Gretel Trung. “It gives a sense of how emotional a time period it was.”
It also provides a kind of memento mori for the actors. “We’re still going to know the Kaddish two years after this is over,” said Koohkanrizi. “You take it with you, probably for the rest of your life.”