A German family huddles around a mahogany radio in the corner of a Dutch annex, listening to the BBC news broadcast in the middle of the night. It is 1944. "The invasion has begun!" an optimistic male voice proclaims in the darkness.
The teenage girl in the room, Anne Frank, who has been hiding with the rest of her family from the Nazis, can hardly believe the news. She is of two minds: eager to have the Allied liberators arrive, and deathly afraid of the nightly firebombing that will precede them.
The young actress at the center of this drama, who captures all of Anne's emotions onstage in the current Steppenwolf production running through June 10, is a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
Claire Elizabeth Saxe has been acting regularly since she was 10, including appearances in numerous productions at the high school, such as The Miracle Worker as Helen Keller's instructor Annie Sullivan. At OPRF, she worked with director Jolaine Orlin on two occasions and says Orlin helped her the most with her acting. According to Saxe, Orlin "has been a wonderful mentor and a great teacher, friend, and second mother."
Saxe heard about auditions for the part of Anne Frank at Steppenwolf through her agent. Paul Noble, an OPRF English teacher and also an actor, helped her to prepare for the audition. "I keep thinking back to the day when I got the phone call telling me that I was called back for Anne," Saxe wrote on Steppenwolf's blog. "I remember the butterflies in my stomach as we pulled into the Steppenwolf parking lot. I could hear them squealing with delight, 'Oh my gosh, in a matter of seconds you will be INSIDE STEPPENWOLF, meeting [director] TINA LANDAU!'"
Saxe landed the part, and is now starring in the role of a girl roughly her age, who, despite the circumstances, is often hopeful, effervescent and gregarious. Early in the Frank family's stay in the Amsterdam annex, when Anne is a 13-year-old, she tackles her father after he gives her a fountain pen and steals her friend Peter's shoes, laughing. Her body language is exuberant as she kicks her legs up and dances to Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home." But before long, as news trickles in about deportations and gas chambers, she becomes despondent, comparing herself to a songbird hurling herself against the side of her cage.
"The challenge has been in tracing [Anne's] progression and finding out how she changes and grows as time goes on," Saxe says.
But as readers of the diary surely know, Anne proves resilient in spite of all the troubles. While listening to the radio, she hears the Dutch education minister, who had evacuated to England, say the government will be collecting diaries after the invasion is complete. Anne is elated, and begins to assemble her writings for publication.
Her father, Otto Frank-the only family member to survive the Holocaust-edited the original diary. The Steppenwolf production, however, includes material from portions he deleted. Anne explores her sexuality, for example, in the expanded version of the diary. In that version, and in the play, she falls for Peter, an awkward boy who lives in the annex with her.
Through the various revisions, including changes made in adapting this material to the stage, the Frank family's story has been transformed.
"This is hardly the truth at all!" Saxe observes. "Perhaps that is the point-that with every generation, each generation will take something different from it. The point is to take from it what you will."
When things are slow during rehearsal, conversation usually finds its way to topics other than acting. The actor who plays Otto, for instance, Yasen Peyankov, hails from Eastern Europe.
"He told me about Bulgaria and what it was like to come back after a while," Saxe says.
She's learning a lot from the other cast members, too. "I don't think I've ever been in a small space with this much talent ever," she says. "Not only are they ridiculously talented, but the sweetest group of people!"
Those who work with Claire, on the other hand, are aglow with praise for the young actress. Carolyn Faye Kramer, who plays Anne's older sister, says Saxe is "just a beautiful person who really cares about people."
Director and ensemble member Tina Landau says the experience of working with Saxe has been "extraordinary and magical. She is completely open, fun and vibrant, with no ego."
During one preview performance that went awry, Landau noted, "Claire kept going like a hero, muscling through the war." According to Landau, Saxe was cast as Anne because of "her depth, soulfulness and intelligence. She was someone to contend with, someone who didn't play into the cliché of a naïve, optimistic woman."
If Saxe does pursue a career in acting, she already has a list of roles she would like to play. "I just saw Uncle Vanya, and I would love to play Sonya," she says. "I would love to be in a Chekhov play."
But she's making progress. "Anne Frank was on my list," she says.
Among her idols, she cites Judi Dench and Meryl Streep.
At OPRF, Saxe participates in Students for Peace and Justice, which recently sponsored a fundraiser for Darfur and a concert to draw attention to violence against women. In her spare time, she knits and crochets.
She will be attending Skidmore College in the fall, where she plans to minor in French and take classes in cultural anthropology and early childhood development while majoring in acting.
A week before the show began its run, Saxe said she was looking forward to performing all the way until June. "As we continue to do the show before an audience, we'll find new moments of truth," she says.