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High drama from Sandy High School actors

by: POST PHOTO: NEIL ZAWICKI - Kady Bradley, Hollyanne Hansen and Cassidy Williams rehearse a scene from Irena's Vow Monday night in the Black Box theater at Sandy High School.The Sandy High School drama department has selected a story of wartime struggle and flawed-but-noble humanity, based on real events from Nazi-occupied Poland, for its first production in the new facility.

What did you expect? “Grease”?

The performers and stage technicians, with direction from department director Chris Harris, elected to produce the 2009 play “Irena’s Vow,” based on the memoir “In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer” by Irena Gut Opdyke, a German-speaking Polish woman who hid Jews from the Nazis, in the same house where she worked as a housekeeper for a German army officer.

Harris says his attention to the interests of his students helped him select the play.

“I got a strong sense from the students that they wanted a drama,” Harris said. “When you talk drama with high school students, the subject is very important. Although this one has Nazis, from a historical perspective, this one works well for them.”

Harris acknowledged the play has undertones of perhaps the most well-known Holocaust play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a play he has directed twice in his 30-year career. But he says this one goes to different places. Specifically, the decisions Irena makes and the bargains into which she enters reveal the light and dark notes of the human condition in the context of morality and self-preservation during an event as tense and brutal as the Second World War.

“How can I tell you about this war? How can I say these things?” Opdyke writes in her memoir. “If I tell you all at once, first this happened, and then this, and these people died and those people lived and then it was over, you will not believe me.”

If this sounds like a tall order from a high school theater company, Harris says it is not. The entire cast has access to Opdyke’s book, and in keeping with their training, the students are reading the book and other historical documents to better inform their performances. This is illustrated through a brief conversation with senior Peter Woodford, who plays the role of Major Rugemer, the German officer with whom Irena has her dealings.

When asked, he quickly dismisses the notion that his character is “the bad guy.”

“I think it’s easy when you play a character in a Holocaust show to just say, ‘Oh, a Nazi, these people are evil,’ “ said Woodford. “But he’s not an evil man. He does do some not good things, but he’s compassionate. He’s actually loving, I guess you could say.”

Woodford went on to say that Rugemer has his vices, but genuinely loves Irena.

“We have your very evil Nazi in the show,” Woodford said, “but then you have Rugemer, which is somewhat of a contrast. He sort of humanizes the story.”

Such nuance will color the performances throughout the cast, if Woodford’s preparation is any indication.

Research into the realities of the people they will portray is something Harris teaches. The goal is to give the characters a dimension of honesty that translates to belief among audience members.

“We try to create good theater, as opposed to just do a high school play,” Harris said. “If you can get to that point, hopefully the audience will not just think they’re watching teenagers.”

Another cast member, senior Drew McLaughlin, plays the older Irena, reflecting on her life. Her work with the production, she said, has given her a new perspective into the experiences of war and Holocaust survivors.

“A couple of rehearsals ago I had an experience while reading my lines,” McLaughlin said. “I realized that the emotions that come up from re-telling something like this can be very powerful.”