THEATRE: The Diary of Anne Frank has a note of timeliness that emphasizes its importance to a young audience.
Anne Frank wanted very much to be a great writer She never lived to know how famous she would become.
That lame began with the publication ot Anne hrank; The Diary of a Young Girl, and continued with the theatrical adap latum of the book by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett in 1955. The stage version. The Diary of Anne Frank, just opened the season at Young People's Theatre.
The narrative that emerges from the diary is the tale of eight Jews who. for two years and one month during the second world war, were hidden in a cramped attic in Amsterdam to escape the Nazis. Anne and her sister Margot. their parents, the Van Daans and their son and a dentist named Mr. Dussel survived for a time with the help of their Christian friends.
The YPT version has some interesting casting. Joanna Scheilenberg, who played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker last season, plays Anne to the Margot of her real-life sister. Reena. Theresa Tova, whose last appearance at YPT was in Village of Idiots, takes on another yenta-like character with Mrs. Van Daan.
But Tova has a specific draw to the current play. She is a child of a survivor from the Holocaust in Poland; everyone but her mother died m the death camps. "There's quite a legacy there." says Tova, "and sometimes it can be a real problem in doing the play.
"Still, there's a really important personal reason for me to get beyond that. It's scary that my mother, who is still alive, has to hear people like Zundel and Keegstra say that the scars on her body don't exist — that they and all the events of the Holocaust are a fabrication."
Living fa c ts The actor knows the importance of keeping the facts alive. "Elie Wiesel says we have the responsibility to be witnesses for humanity. Some people seem apathetic about what they see as the cliches of the Holocaust, but the fact is that six million people died and no one bothered to do anything about it. I worry what will happen in 30 years, when there are no survivors ielt to s.i> that the event happened and that. yes. we are capable of doing something like that."
Its especially timely, thinks Tova, to revive The Diary of Anne Prank now. what with the press on Kurt Waldheim. "It's not jusl a Jewish discussion, but a universal one — exactly what is freedom of speech and the press about?"
Since the play tells a true story, the actors and director Richard (ireenblatt have done some research on the characters' lives "The Franks were a German family who left their home in 1933." says Tova. "But even in the Netherlands, when things got tighter and tighter, no one believed what was happening. People put blinkers on and thought Hitler was a small problem that would go away."
The Van Daans had their own reasons for not leaving. A wealthy family, they could have escaped to Switzerland or America, but Mrs. Van Daan wouldn't leave her furniture behind. "It was incomprehensible to her that anything could occur." notes the actor. "As a woman of her time, she was used to the cultural richness of northern Europe, used to being token care of by the men around her.
"Even though she had to flee into hiding quickly, she took the most elegant clothes she owned." Tova pulls out a gold-lame evening dress, which she wears in the pla\' s Hanukkah scene, and points to a fur coat. "It's all she could manage, but it's the latest in ghetto garb."
Icy laugh There's ice behind that laugh, for on the coat is a large yellow star with the word "Jew" on it. Though Tova is naturally exuberant, the comment has its bitterness.
"Mrs. Van Daan had something lonely about her, and it conies out in both the play and the diary. We've gone back to Anne's original work to develop characterizations. My character is quite a child herself, and initially there's a bond built up between Mrs. Van Daan and Anne. They like each other, even though that relationship is squashed by what happens in the attic."
The use of the diary has given a different feel to the production, thinks Tova. "It offers amazing insights into the relationships of people caught in such a pressured situation. The play goes for safe material at times, but Richard has added some original diary entries for Anne to speak. For instance. there's more about Anne's going through puberty. The kids in the audience accept the lines because they're so poetic and so real."
The student matinees, in fact, were initially a surprise to the cast. In going for the life of the characters rather than the context of the war. the production has caught its young audiences. " If we worried about the heaviness of the material, that disappeared in the first performance. The kids were wonderful, going with us the whole way.
"There are a lot of laughs in the play, as well as an optimistic note But even beyond that, the chiiuren applaud every time Anne scores a point off the adults on the stage. The tension between the parents and their children is increased because of the situation — the adults have lost power themselves, and can only exercise their strength over the children. The kids in the audience love Anne's feistiness all the more for this. Our director calls the work a child-advocacy play."