There is a myth that community theater groups should dabble only in lively musicals, Neil Simon plays and other non-plots that require better looks than acting.
The Arlington Players are proving that myth wrong with their current production: a compelling rendition of Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Diary of Anne Frank."
Based on the diary of a 13-year-old girl who went into hiding in an Amsterdam attic during World War II with seven other Jews, the play details her cramped existence and her expansive thoughts. "There are no locks anyone can put on your mind," her father tells her as he hands her the diary--a fact she proves over and over again.
With the exception of the father, all the attic's inhabitants eventually become Holocaust statistics. With this fact implied at the play's beginning, like a glass set on the edge of a table that you know you cannot catch, the cast's fate gnaws at the audience throughout the play.
To balance this, director Sara Cytron very wisely presents the production as a dark comedy, with the characters' many foibles magnified under the microscope of their fearful existence and played in their funniest light. The middle-aged woman, who flirts with the only man she is not related to, is seen as more outrageous than pathetic; the trauma of teen-age years lived under full-time scrutiny of disapproving adults is played as a battle of wits and energy versus power and lethargy.
We hate Mr. Dussel, the unmarried dentist, when he tells the teen-aged Peter that the boy's lost cat probably made someone a handsome meal; we cheer when Anne confesses that she hid a wet mop in the dentist's bed. Yet we can sympathize with Anne's mother, consistently unable to take the right tack with her exuberant and ever-changing daughter.
This is mostly due to the skill of Eliane Jost, who plays Anne's mother--a member of a cast of supporting actors that brings a depth and humanity to its stereotyped roles. The only exception is the fussy Mr. Dussel, a comic character played by Larry Lerer with a certain vaudevillian predictability.
Taken together, the cast provides a strong backdrop to the show's central--and at times, only real--character, that of Anne herself. We see the other seven only as Anne sees them, record events only as they occur in her awareness and come away with her perceptions of life.
It is these perceptions--indefatigably optimistic, born of innocence and stoked with a kind of fierce rage at the unfairness of the world--that make the play worth seeing. And it is these same perceptions that make the role so tricky for the female lead. The tendency is to over-exude, to take the energy of a 13-year-old in the pressure cooker of two years of imposed, daily silence, and explode it repeatedly before the audience.
It is a tendency that Arlington Players' Anne--Campbell Ehols, a sophomore at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School--falls into occasionally, though she does not wallow there long. Her Anne bounces and boils, but retains our sympathy when she oversteps her bounds.
Ehols is a product of Arlington's much envied Visual and Performing Arts Department, which supports 14 different groups, including four theater organizations, with the $310,000 the department received from the county this year.
Ehols gained her experience in five productions of the county's children's theater as well as in local school productions, and already has worked for the county's new readers' theater.
Through this production she has a chance to work with the kind of die-hard hams who make up community theater, with literally hundreds of plays between them. Some, such as the play's award-winning set designer, Candy Hughes, work only for Arlington Players.
Hughes' design for this set--a four-level, cold and junky attic--deserves another award. It enables the director to keep her audience aware of the inhabitants' overwhelming togetherness without distracting them from the main action.
The same cannot be said for the lighting, an entirely unconvincing job. The attic depends on a single central bulb, which the actors adjust delicately, only to have the full stage thrown into a flood of light. Designer David Harris, with 16 Arlington Players shows to his credit, must have been asleep on this one, or out of funds.
Unlike Harris, most of the play's actors and crew have rotated in from other local community theaters. Many came through the Northern Virginia Theatre Alliance, a fairly new group of more than two dozen acting outlets that works to prevent play duplications and to advertise audition dates. Their president, Bruce Follmer, plays Anne's father in this production.
What all this experience amounts to is a very credible pool of local actors able to handle real plays with real plots. And that is just what Arlington Players has done with "Diary"--warts, wounds and all.
"Diary of Anne Frank," presented by The Arlington Players, March 19 and 20 at 8 p.m. at the Gunston Arts Center Theatre, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Tickets are $4.75 and $3.75; senior citizens can receive two-for-the-price-of-one coupons. For reservations and information, call 750-0888.