‘The Book of Everything’ promises to be an emotional experience

Return to stage by Haddonfield Memorial High School thespians draws on universal themes of trauma.

Next week, Haddonfield Memorial High School’s Drama Club will present “The Book of Everything,” about a Dutch boy’s experiences in post-war Amsterdam and the way in which he uses imagination to escape the drudgery of life. While not the lighthearted fare expected from a theater experience after COVID, actors believe there are important themes in the show that resonate with the present. Here, the ensemble cast blocks out a scene during an Oct. 8 rehearsal that takes place in church.

Given the stress, pressure, mental and physical strains of dealing with everyday life in the thick of a pandemic for the last 18 months, one might expect a return to the theater would be a safer, more uplifting experience. 

But Haddonfield Memorial High School’s drama club returns this year with a deeper, introspective and forthright look at the life of a child living through adverse circumstances of his own. 

In “The Book of Everything,” a children’s novel written in 2004 by Dutch author Guus Kuijer, 9-year-old Thomas Klopper lives in post-war Amsterdam with an abusive father and strong-willed mother, under guidance from the stern hand of religion. To deal with the drudgery of everyday life, he starts writing a book of all the interesting things he sees that other people seem to ignore.

The book was first translated into English two years after publication, before its transformation into a stage production by Australian playwright Richard Tulloch in 2010. 

“For a TYA (theatre for young audiences) play, ‘The Book of Everything’ deals with some challenging topics,” noted director Matt DiDonato. “As a cast and crew, we have been able to explore some very meaningful and relevant themes while trying out some contemporary storytelling techniques for the first time.”

Senior Jack Eyles, who’s at the center of the maelstrom as Thomas, said the troupe as a whole thinks it’s important that children have an understanding of these heavier, adult themes, because it may bring clarity to situations in their own home lives. He also acknowledged the seriousness of the subject matter often required some behind-the-scenes levity after rehearsals. 

“We talked about these things a lot, to make sure all of us understood them and how to play them well,” he added. “We did some of the heavier scenes for the auditions, and then once the parts were given out, scaled back a bit.” 

Fellow senior Kyle Smart is playing against type as the domineering father. He also gets a dual role as a dog that demonstrates a pointed contrast. 

“In every production of the show, the actor who plays the dog also plays the father,” Smart revealed. “Because it shows (vulnerability). There’s a scene where the dog runs up to children and they move away, and there is a scene later where the father comes up to some children and he’s trying to be playful, and they just kind of move on.”

Smart relishes the chance to be back within the creative space and to give a performance without a mask, so a proper range of emotions can be fully expressed. 

“I have done a few (outdoor) performances,” he admitted. “Last summer they were outside, and I hate that. It’s a lot nicer to be back in here, whether we’re wearing masks or not, it’s nice to not have to stay 6 feet apart and not feel safe.” 

Mary Clare Michael, who plays Thomas’ abused mother, is working through a role that’s more  dramatic than any other she’s encountered. Most of the work in making her character both strong willed and sympathetic allowed Michael to focus attention away from the harsh treatment her character receives throughout the show.  

“Before I start a scene, I like to get into the head space and think about the context (of the character) and how my character would be feeling in the moment and the things that line up to it,” she offered.

There’s an obvious parallel in all of us since March 2020, and Michael believes that could be an integral part of the viewing experience for those who attend any performance. During rehearsals, she came to realize how important staging a play with these themes is important as a way to, hopefully, free up some harmful emotions experienced from living under COVID’s shadow. 

“I hope that they’ll be able to take away the themes of the show, and maybe start some conversations within their own lives and reflect on the presence of abuse, religion and trauma or coping,” she explained. 

Performances are Oct. 21 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors. They can be purchased via a link on the drama club website at hmhsdrama.com. This play is recommended for children 10 and up. 

For more information, contact Kristine Haynes at: khaynes@haddonfield.k12.nj.us.