The most chilling part of "Anne Frank & Me" at Orlando Repertory Theatre is not the scene of Nazi soldiers rounding up terrified Jews in 1940s Paris.
Much scarier is the present-day scene of a mother chirpily comparing the Holocaust to a fish story of the sort recounted by imaginative sailors.
"The fish gets bigger and bigger each time the story's told," Becky Eck, as the mother, says dismissively.
Even more scary: The way her 10-year-old daughter (Mackenzie Potter) trumpets her parents' warped beliefs, announcing there's no scientific proof for the mass slaughter of Jews, communists, gays and others because she has heard her father say it didn't happen — "and he's a scientist."
There's a lesson for adults there in how bigotry is passed down from generation to generation, and that's part of the beauty of the Rep's well-staged "Anne Frank & Me": There are things to learn for the youngsters in the audience, as well as valuable reminders for we older folk.
In the story by Cherie Bennett, Nicole (Kathryn Nash) comes from a family of Holocaust deniers. Assigned to read "The Diary of Anne Frank" at school, she can't be bothered — she's more interested in catching the eye of studly Jack (Jose Miguel Vasquez).
But after a knock on the head, Nicole finds herself part of a Jewish family in occupied France during World War II, and she experiences the fear and horror of those times first-hand.
Director Gary Cadwallader has done a masterful job of establishing the modern-day teen scene to draw in a young audience: Nicole and her friends Mimi and Suzanne (Jessica Hondel, Bella Muller) are preparing a hip-hop routine for a school performance. Best buds Jack and Eddie (Sage Starkey) are in overdrive trying to be cooler than each other, and lovesick David (Alex Dyon) just wants to fit in.
Starkey especially hits the nail on the head as a hoodie-wearing, street-talkin', wannabe teenage hipster, diving into his comedic role without an ounce of self-consciousness.
The frequent laughter drawn by the kids' teenage travails gives way to a more serious mood when Nicole travels back in time.
Here, the emotional burden shifts to the adults. Eck, as Jewish mother Renee, becomes more and more tightly wound, through fear and trying to convince herself her family will be safe from the Nazi raids: "We're French," she cries. "My family has lived in Paris for four generations."
As her husband, Sam Little displays a tired strength as he struggles between protecting his family and standing up for his people.
There's a nice symmetry in the script between the teens of the '40s and the teens of today: Learning silly dances (to "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" in the '40s) and worrying about love. The message — that we're all the same — isn't heavy-handed, just evident.
Nash's sense of wonderment makes her character's impossible situation seem real, and she has a lovely rapport with Potter, who as her little sister is perfectly precocious, bratty and loving — not necessarily in that order.
Dyon's 1940s persona, also named David, also reveals hidden depths of strength under a soft-spoken exterior.
The tragedies of one crucial night are not depicted gruesomely — but there's no doubt how hatred has affected Nicole, as family and friends are ripped away, the innocent are slain and love is lost.
A cattle-car, transporting French Jews to death camps, is emotionally sketched through bobbing lighting, designed by David M. Upton, and rumbling sound, designed by Colin Powers. It's there that Nicole comes face to face with Anne Frank (Chelsea Lynn Talmadge).
By play's end, the chatter and giggling from the youngsters around me had turned into gasps — at the soldiers silhouetted in the harsh lights of Auschwitz, at the rags now worn by the women, at the sinister hissing of the gas.
I'd like to think lessons were learned — whether the audience realized it or not.
Matthew J. Palm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5038.
See for yourself
•What: Orlando Repertory Theatre production of 'Anne Frank & Me,' a play by Cherie Bennett
•When: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 27
•Where: Orlando Repertory Theatre, 1001 Princeton St., Orlando
•Tickets: $17 adults, $15 students and seniors, $12 ages 17 and younger (limited free ArtsFest tickets available for Feb. 5 and 13 shows at artsfestFL.com)
•Online: orlandorep.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times