World War II is a dark night in world history, hardly the topic one expects for a children’s book or play. But “Number the Stars,” a play based on Lois Lowry’s award-winning book, twinkles with a sky full of bright spots like friendship, family bonds and bravery. The show, which opened Oct. 12 to a full house at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, makes a great first family production of the season with enough meat in the story for adults in the audience but not too scary for the smallest fans.
Set in Denmark, this child’s view of war doesn’t get into the full horror of the Holocaust. Instead, our heroine Annemarie Johansen imagines the gruff Nazi soldiers marching around Copenhagen are “probably bored, looking for someone to talk to.” Hiding Jewish friend Ellen Rosen is a giggly girl’s sleep-over and pretending Ellen is her deceased older sister is nothing more than acting out a play.
The Johansen parents, like other Danes, have a plan to protect their Jewish neighbors by hiding them on fishing boats and taking them to Sweden. But they don’t tell the kids exactly what’s about to happen setting up a nice little bit of mystery as the adventure evolves.
Annemarie (Emelia Shaw) and Ellen (Evangeline Vander Ark) create a warm, believable friendship, teasing about a boyish suitor and sharing secrets. But it’s younger sister Kirstie (Grace Berlin) who fills the stage with youthful exuberance and spouts the funniest lines, including her reaction to a dead body that closes the first act.
An offstage a cappella chorus of Danish children’s ditties and Jewish songs provides a nice transition between the scenes and helps foreshadow the action. Director Pamela Steers has opted for just a touch of Danish and German accents, enough to set the scene but not enough to make the dialogue difficult to understand.
Set designer David Len offers a suggestion of Copenhagen architecture as a backdrop and uses a multi-purpose raised brick platform center stage as the upstairs bedroom, train depot, boat dock and more. Keith Oberfeld’s lighting design shapes the open stage, focusing attention on action or conversation and creating the sense of time passing.
One of the best features of “Number the Stars” is the assumption, right from the beginning, that Jewish neighbors are full-fledged Danes, and that the Danes will protect them the same as they would protect their king. There’s a belief in equality that goes beyond mere acceptance. This child-like view is perhaps a bit naïve but oh so inspiring.
“Number the Stars” continues through Oct. 21 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets available at the box office or at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre’s website.
*Photos courtesy of Grand Rapids Civic Theatre