Cov­er of the diary of Anne Frank, 1942

Spring 1982

Peter Van Daan

For Declan Spen­gler, every­thing that wound up hap­pen­ing — to him­self, to all of them, to the whole crazy coun­try if you stopped to think about it — start­ed the day he audi­tioned for the role of Peter Van Daan. It wasn’t even sup­posed to be an audi­tion as much as a for­mal­i­ty — one of those annoy­ing motions you had to go through in order to ensure that what was des­tined to hap­pen would actu­al­ly wind up happening.

Some things were fore­gone con­clu­sions. The Cubs would not make the play­offs this year no mat­ter how loud­ly Declan cheered for them; Burt Lan­cast­er would not win an Oscar for Atlantic City no mat­ter how much Declan thought he deserved it; Declan’s par­ents would nev­er get back togeth­er no mat­ter how much he might have want­ed them to. But a fore­gone con­clu­sion didn’t have to be a trag­ic one; after all, Declan him­self, once he went on the New York the­ater trip with Ty Dens­more, grad­u­at­ed from high school in June, then four years lat­er fin­ished North­west­ern with a BA in the­ater — yes, Declan Spen­gler — would mar­ry Car­rie Hollinger, just as sure as he would be there onstage play­ing Peter oppo­site Carrie’s Anne Frank.

First, though, if he want­ed all that to hap­pen, he had to audition.

The gray­ish after­noon light was fad­ing behind the nub­bly stair­well win­dows, and the mut­ters and laughs of ner­vous audi­tion­ing actors grew loud­er as Declan once again climbed the cracked green linoleum steps to the The­ater Annex of North Shore Mag­net High School.

Locat­ed in cen­tral Evanston and bor­dered by low-slung fac­to­ries and ware­hous­es on one side and tidy sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes on anoth­er, North Shore Mag­net, much like Declan him­self, was in an in-between sort of place, seem­ing­ly on its way to some­place bet­ter. Not quite Evanston Town­ship, the mas­sive, sprawl­ing cityscape of a high school one mile away — not quite the mon­eyed, cos­set­ed enclaves of New Tri­er or any of the pri­vate schools along Green Bay or Sheri­dan Road — North Shore was equidis­tant from who Declan was and who he was plan­ning to become. To the south­west was the tiny A‑frame that Declan shared with his mom in Lin­col­nwood, just out­side Chica­go. Due north was the ele­gant Tudor home where Car­rie lived in Wil­mette with her family.

For Declan, though, the Annex had always seemed to be a world apart from all that. On every oth­er floor of North Shore at the end of the day, hall­ways were cramped and bustling: stu­dents gos­sip­ing by their lock­ers; kids in back­packs rac­ing out the door to the bus stop or the Fos­ter Street el, water polo play­ers with hair wet from the show­ers and pool rush­ing past clumps of burnouts saun­ter­ing to the smok­ing area for one last cig­a­rette; hot­head­ed boys squar­ing off as blood­thirsty crowds chant­ed Fight! Fight! Fight!” But up here was only the soli­tude and safe­ty of a bright, spa­cious aerie with a pair of class­rooms, Ty Densmore’s office, and the the­ater itself.

Declan opened the Annex door. The hall­way was pun­gent with stale smoke, per­fume, and Aqua Net hair­spray. His out­fit was sim­ple: white oxford, new jeans, loafers — not try­ing too hard, not pre­sum­ing too much. Not like those fresh­men and sopho­mores who had dressed to audi­tion: dozens of Peter Van Daans in pressed white shirts, ties, knit pants, scuffed black shoes, and news­boy caps; dozens of Anne Franks in plain white blous­es, tweed skirts, tights, and dark red lip­stick. Franks and Van Daans were doing breath­ing exer­cis­es; Franks and Van Daans were run­ning lines; Franks and Van Daans were prac­tic­ing Euro­pean accents.

Declan used to know every­one here, but today, near­ly half were strangers. Some skin­ny, Jew­ish-look­ing kid was wear­ing a medi­um-blue bike racer’s cap with smears of bicy­cle grease on his yel­low MINKY’S BIKE SHOP shirt and fad­ed, sag­gy jeans. A leg­gy blonde-haired girl in a white peas­ant blouse was under­lin­ing pas­sages in a book cov­ered in green MAR­SHALL FIELD’S wrap­ping paper. Aman­da Wehn­er, hands in the pock­ets of her red sateen GUARDIAN ANGELS jack­et, was sit­ting between the legs of Rob Rubi­coff, who was chuck­ling over a copy of Pent­house he had filched from Tyrus Densmore’s desk. Judith Nagorsky — there in her thrift shop scarves and skirts — was doing the splits as she stud­ied her script, paus­ing only to give the fin­ger to Trey New­son, who informed her that doing the splits was easy, but he bet she couldn’t spin around on a dick the way his girl­friend Kathy Ho-HO-Ho” could, while Eileen Mul­doon, who had served as stage man­ag­er and com­pa­ny pho­tog­ra­ph­er for every play and musi­cal since she had been at North Shore but had nev­er got­ten cast in one, laughed so hard that her face turned near­ly as red as the ribbed Christ­mas-gift sweater she was wear­ing. You’re so sick,” Eileen told Trey.

All 275 pounds of Calvin Bum­bry Dawes, Afro includ­ed, were here too — Calvin paced the hall­way, bust­ing jokes about how a broth­er such as myself” could nev­er be cast in this play. He slapped Declan five, then attempt­ed an accent that he thought sound­ed South African and told Declan he would give such a stel­lar audi­tion that Ty Dens­more would have to move the play from Ams­ter­dam to Johan­nes­burg and rename the whole damn thing The Diary of Aisha Katan­ga.

Splen­did idea, mate.” Declan smiled broad­ly, try­ing to con­ceal his irri­ta­tion with the play Mr. Dens­more had cho­sen. The Diary of Anne Frank would be Declan’s last show at North Shore, and it was a grim play, the sto­ry of ten doomed peo­ple whose refuge turned out to be their prison. Spring plays were sup­posed to be come­dies or musi­cals, and if Dens­more didn’t want to direct one of those, couldn’t he at least have cho­sen some­thing with showier roles instead of this somber ensem­ble piece about the Holocaust?

Three or four years ago, no one said a word about the Holo­caust, but ever since that NBC minis­eries that every­one was sup­posed to watch, it seemed impos­si­ble for Declan to escape it.

Three or four years ago, no one said a word about the Holo­caust, but ever since that NBC minis­eries that every­one was sup­posed to watch, it seemed impos­si­ble for Declan to escape it. Every time he picked up a mag­a­zine, some Nazi war crim­i­nal was on the cov­er; every time he watched the news, there was a sto­ry about John Dem­jan­juk, the alleged Ivan the Ter­ri­ble”; the last school assem­bly he’d attend­ed was about Holo­caust aware­ness; the only field trip he’d tak­en this year was to the Skok­ie Library to meet elder­ly men and women with num­bers tat­tooed on their arms. Nev­er for­get,” they all told him. Nev­er for­get.” Declan knew this was an awful thing to think and he would nev­er in a mil­lion years have said it to Car­rie or her fam­i­ly, but he sort of thought the whole point of the Annex was that it should be a place where you could for­get about things like the Holocaust.

The door to the audi­tion room opened. The Annex’s tech­ni­cal direc­tor, Sam­my Dou­los, now in his fifth year at the high school, walked out in an EMER­SON, LAKE & PALMER con­cert jer­sey, fad­ed green DART­MOUTH sweat­pants, and black show­er clogs. He reeked of pot smoke. Sam­my flung his hair out of his eyes, then looked down at his clip­board. Declan Spen­gler,” he said.

Declan nod­ded grave­ly. Thanks, Sam.” He could hear the sounds of the hall­way fade into silence; his name car­ried that sort of weight here.

He adjust­ed the strap of his shoul­der bag and strode for­ward, con­fi­dent yet gra­cious and hum­ble — the same way he would han­dle fame when it came to him. Just a cou­ple of years ear­li­er, he had wait­ed all night down in Chica­go at Lake View High School to get cast as an extra in My Body­guard. The most instruc­tive part of the expe­ri­ence hadn’t tak­en place when the cam­era was rolling; it hap­pened in the down­time when he got to watch how pro­fes­sion­al actors behaved. Adam Bald­win had been stand­off­ish and rude, but Matt Dil­lon was total­ly cool; he even gave Declan use­ful fash­ion tips — told him to pop the col­lars of his polo shirts and grow his hair longer and part it in the mid­dle instead of on the side so he could get more chicks.” Declan liked the idea of dis­pens­ing advice like that.

He entered the audi­tion room, and the door shut behind him. So many mem­o­ries in this room. So much sad­ness; so much rag­ing glo­ry. The first time Declan had come here, he was still reel­ing from the worst night of his life. The Sun­day before Declan’s Our Town audi­tion, his father had asked him to car­ry two suit­cas­es down the dri­ve­way to the Mus­tang — only after Mr. Spen­gler hand­ed over his house keys had Declan real­ized his dad was leav­ing his mom for good. But on that Mon­day, after Declan read for the part of George, and Ty Dens­more squeezed his shoul­der and told him he brought that spe­cial vul­ner­a­ble qual­i­ty” Ty had been look­ing for, Declan under­stood that if he hadn’t spent the pre­vi­ous night cry­ing, he wouldn’t have nailed his audi­tion. Now he could bare­ly remem­ber the gan­g­ly, awk­ward kid he’d been before Dens­more turned him into a star.

As Declan walked to the cen­ter of the room, he could imag­ine his entire high school career con­verg­ing in this moment: the smell of foun­da­tion make­up; the harsh sen­sa­tion of eye­lin­er pressed right under your lid; the mount­ed TV on which Dens­more showed videos of Nicol Williamson per­form­ing Shake­speare; the win­dow where they watched every oth­er stu­dent and teacher leave while they stayed past mid­night to get a scene right; the way Dens­more would break you down, then build you back up again and tell you exact­ly what he was doing: I am break­ing you down, Dec, but I will build you back up.”

Dens­more was sit­ting behind his desk in his usu­al black turtle­neck and a gray scarf, tall black boots hiked up on the desk. His bald pate gleamed in the glow of the over­head flu­o­res­cents. He had a notepad in his lap and he was suck­ing on the end of a ball­point pen.

Declan put his bag down on a chair and took his place in front of the desk.

A bit­ter­sweet moment,” Dens­more said. Your last audi­tion for me. And the last role you’ll play here. Now, tell me which you’d choose.”

I’ll be play­ing Peter,” said Declan.


Peter Van Daan.”

Mr. Densmore’s face seemed to droop. He stroked his goa­tee with his pen. Peter? Real­ly?” he asked. Think for a moment; think very care­ful­ly. Peter isn’t that much of a role, Dec. He won’t show­case your abil­i­ty to com­mand a stage. He’s just such a bland boy: he stut­ters when Anne flirts with him; he blush­es around her. Let’s be hon­est, when it comes down to it, Peter is just an irri­tat­ing, stut­ter­ing, nat­ter­ing lit­tle pussy.”

Not the way I’ll play him,” Declan said. And when I’m at North­west­ern, I won’t get to play lead roles right away; I’ll have to get used to being part of an ensem­ble. Peter will be good practice.”

What Declan didn’t men­tion was that he felt cer­tain Dens­more would cast Car­rie as Anne Frank, and he couldn’t stand the idea of any oth­er actor play­ing her boyfriend. The idea haunt­ed him so much — Trey New­son danc­ing with Car­rie; Rob Rubi­coff steal­ing a kiss from her; Calvin Dawes smoth­er­ing her — that he had to take the role himself.

Well, let’s see this Peter’ of yours,” Dens­more said.

Declan turned his back, closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then spun around and gave Sam­my a tight lit­tle nod. He was ready.

Dens­more read a short intro­duc­tion to the scene: The stage is dark. A cyclo­rama of Ams­ter­dam at night fades into view. Peter is with Anne in his room. And lights up!

Sam­my began the dia­logue, read­ing Anne’s lines flat­ly: I wan­na be a jour­nal­ist or some­thin’. I love to write. What do you wan­na do?”

Declan peered meek­ly through imag­i­nary glass­es and spoke in a halt­ing mid­dle Euro­pean accent — not a thick one, just a lilt as he felt him­self becom­ing Peter. I thought I might go off somepless,” he said, verk on a farm or somesing … some job zhat doesn’t tekk much brenns.”

Dens­more kept his face blank, giv­ing away noth­ing. He nev­er did. And as Declan kept read­ing, he secret­ly thanked Dens­more for that lack of con­sid­er­a­tion, for it made him try hard­er. He could feel Peter’s lone­li­ness, his fear of get­ting too close to Anne, of dying in the war, of becom­ing a man. His tears flowed as Sam­my read Anne’s line: Every­one has friends.”

Not me. I don’t vant enny.” Declan wiped his eyes. I get along all right vis­sout zhem.”

Boom — right on the mon­ey. Now Declan’s only fear was that he would have no idea how, over the course of the rehearsal process, to delve fur­ther into this char­ac­ter. But some­how he would find new depths. It was like when he used to spend his week­end after­noons avoid­ing his par­ents’ fights by play­ing Aster­oids at the Nov­el­ty Golf Arcade: just when he thought he couldn’t go any fur­ther, he’d unlock anoth­er realm, just as now, when he read the final line in his scene, he dis­cov­ered a mean­ing he hadn’t reg­is­tered before.

Nine o’clock,” Sam­my read. I haf­ta go. G’night.”

You won’t let zhem stop you from comink?” Declan asked.

Over the dozens of times he had read this line, to him­self or when he had Car­rie prac­tice it with him, You won’t let them stop you from com­ing?” had seemed like a sim­ple ques­tion: Would Anne come to see him even if her par­ents told her she couldn’t? But there was so much more to it. The ques­tion was not just about whether Mr. and Mrs. Frank would allow their daugh­ter to spend time with him; it was about the Nazis out­side. Could they be stopped? It was about the world forces that would inter­vene in their just-blos­som­ing love affair: Could they be stopped? It was about the inde­fati­ga­bil­i­ty of love and the human spirit.

Declan could feel Car­rie near him — could feel him­self ask­ing her to assure him that, no, she wouldn’t let any­one stop her from com­ing. Not the Nazis and not Carrie’s par­ents, who always eyed Declan with weary, con­de­scend­ing skep­ti­cism, as if their daughter’s love for him was some­thing she’d outgrow.

Declan said the final line one more time to give it its full mean­ing and empha­sis. His breaths halt­ed; his voice qua­vered. You won’t let them stop you from com­ing?

He dropped his hands to his sides. He took a breath, closed his eyes, then opened them again. Dens­more was star­ing right at him; a smile formed on one side of the man’s mouth.

Well,” Dens­more said, I won’t let them stop you from cum­ming; the ques­tion is whether Car­rie will.”

Sam­my erupt­ed in rude laugh­ter — Eeh eeh, eeh” — then mimed mas­tur­bat­ing and made sound effects: Pfft, pfft, pfft.

Dens­more winked, then reached across his desk and swat­ted Declan’s ass with his clip­board. Nice job as per usu­al, Dec,” he said. Declan picked up his bag, lift­ed the strap over his shoul­der, and head­ed out of the room as Sam­my shuf­fled out to call in the next actor: Franklin Light.” The skin­ny kid with the bicy­cle grease on his shirt and jeans walked past Declan and into the audi­tion room.

Adam Langer is a jour­nal­ist, an edi­tor, and the author of a mem­oir and five nov­els includ­ing the inter­na­tion­al­ly best-sell­ing nov­el Cross­ing Cal­i­for­nia. A fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the New York Times, he cur­rent­ly serves as cul­ture edi­tor at The For­ward.