In Adam Langer’s sixth novel, The Diary of Anne Frank acts as the backdrop to a group of student actors’ formative experiences, which are carried forward into the cultural and political conflicts of the early 21st century.
Cyclorama begins at a magnet high school in the northern suburbs of Chicago in 1982. Tyrus Densmore, an imperious and wildly inappropriate director of the school’s drama program, is holding auditions for a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. When the role of Peter Van Daan goes to inexperienced underclassman Franklin Light instead of seasoned senior Declan Spengler, it sets off a series of cataclysmic events, including a sexual assault, among the young cast.
Tyrus is the kind of teacher who exploits his students’ fears and insecurities, especially those who are undersupervised or from single-parent families. When Franklin goes to Tyrus’ home for a costume fitting, two other students, Robert Rubicoff and Eileen Muldoon, witness Tyrus commit what looks like nonconsensual sexual actions. Robert and Eileen plan to expose Tyrus on the night of the cast party, but their plot not only fails to entrap their teacher but also puts several other students in grave jeopardy.
Thirty years later, on the eve of the 2016 election, Tyrus is still teaching. His former students may no longer live in his vicinity, but many of them still feel, decades later, that their lives were shaped by his abuse. When someone comes forward with an allegation that dates back to the early 1980s, the consequences ripple through the entire Anne Frank cast in unexpected ways.
Cyclorama is an often funny, slightly messy but mostly deeply moving novel about the ways unresolved trauma affects the life choices we make, including the paths we take in our careers, the partners we choose and the politics we support. It’s also a novel about how the bonds of friendship can transcend adolescent vulnerabilities and motivate us to work for change. Langer treats these teenage upheavals with a light hand, and though the novel occasionally takes some shortcuts in character development, the results are generous to its flawed cast.
In theater, a cyclorama is a cylindrical curtain or wall that’s positioned to form a panoramic background for the staged action. Like such a device, Langer’s novel reveals how the past echoes through the present and continues to shape our futures.