In new novel, former high school theater kids look back

In new novel, former high school theater kids look back

“Cyclorama” is in many ways an extraordinary novel.

Author Adam Langer, an editor at the Forward, has managed to encapsulate near-universal experiences in a book that is at times moving, occasionally funny, but always intelligent.  Anyone who’s ever looked back and said “If only I had…” will find something relatable here.

Adam Langer

The madeleine in this remembrance of things past is a 1982 suburban Chicago high school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” It is directed by Tyrus Densmore, a failed Broadway actor stuck in a bad marriage, father of  a troubled son, whose only joy is wielding the Gestapo-like power he has over his high-school-age actors.

He toys with them, emotionally and sexually.  And because they are teens, with their own litany of problems — uncaring, drunken, or divorcing parents — they are susceptible to his manipulation. He insists that that his charges like Anne; that they keep diaries chronicling their most personal feelings, often embarrassing entries  that enable him to further tighten his grip on them.

Switch to 2016 and things have changed, though sometimes in name only.  Anne Frank has been replaced by an illegal immigrant who finds sanctuary (quite fittingly, it seems) in a synagogue one of the students attended as a child.

Most of the student actors — some successful, some less so — are still dealing with the aftershock of the play.  “We all came into at a time in our lives when we were dreaming of everything we might do one day,” one student says, “but the director beat the drams out of us, and some of us still haven’t gotten them back,” one student says.

What is particularly impressive is that while the cast is large, Langer somehow makes each of the dozen students distinct and recognizable. Readers likely will say, I know that person or I am or was that kid, I felt that pain.

It is a masterly and intelligent work.

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