The timing of a production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” could not be more appropriate, said Remy Zaken, the Jewish actress who will be taking the lead role in the play opening at the Pittsburgh Public Theater on Sept. 24. It runs through Oct. 25.
“With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, especially in France, now is an appropriate time for this show,” observed Zaken, who is 26, but has the slight build, energy and girlish countenance of the 13 year old she will portray in the production.
“This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps,” Zaken said. “And as the Holocaust survivors are getting older and passing away, it’s important that we keep the memory of the Holocaust alive.”
In 1940, the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, and began systematically persecuting its Jewish citizens. On July 5, 1942, Anne Frank’s older sister, Margot, was summoned by the Nazis to report to a labor camp, spurring their father, Otto, to take his family into hiding. Along with four other people, the Franks spent the next 25 months living in a secret annex on the top of an office building. It was there that Anne wrote her diary, which has been praised by literary scholars as not just a record of the times, but as a significant work of literature.
The play “The Dairy of Anne Frank,” written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is an adaptation of “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” the printed version of Anne’s diary, which originally was published in France and Germany in 1950 on what would have been Anne’s 23rd birthday. The play first opened on Broadway in 1955, winning both a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. For much of its audience, it was a first look at the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis.
The PPT’s production is being directed by Pamela Berlin, who visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam in June to prepare herself for the task of directing the show.
“I really did feel the ghosts there, as it were,” said Berlin, who also is Jewish. “I could feel the people who are in our play. I could feel them in those rooms.”
While viewing the tiny rooms of the house, Berlin was struck, not only by how “shockingly small” they were, but how difficult it must have been for its residents to have to live without natural sunlight for more than two years.
“I realized they were living in a state of perpetual twilight, because the windows always had to be covered,” Berlin said. “There was no fresh air. I really hadn’t thought about that before I was there.”
As a Jew, Berlin said, her “personal attachment and commitment to the story has been profound.”
For Zaken, who was raised in the Conservative movement, Anne Frank is a “dream role.”
“Being a Jewish actor, I don’t get a lot of chances to play Jewish parts,” said Zaken, whose credits include originating the role of Thea in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway. “Anne Frank is such an iconic figure, and this is a story that needs to be told.”
Zaken, who has relatives who are part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, had long felt like she was neglecting her responsibilities as a Jew “because I was not as extreme,” she said. But her self-judging ended when she took a Birthright trip to Israel a couple years ago.
“I formed a deeper connection to my Judaism on Birthright, and I realized you can take it as far as you want,” Zaken said, adding that she relates to the character of Anne.
“She was an ordinary person, living through extraordinary circumstances,” Zaken said. “We have a lot of things in common, like always wanting to be the center of attention, and being full of energy.”
Berlin, who has directed several other shows at the PPT, including “The Glass Menagerie” and “Clybourne Park,” is happy to be returning to Pittsburgh, which she refers to as “a second home.” Her “Anne Frank” cast of eight has already formed a family, in a way similar to those eight who were confined to the annex in Amsterdam for two years.
“This is such an ensemble piece,” said Berlin. “Anne called the whole group living in the annex ‘the family.’ They formed a family in that annex. It became such a powder keg in that room, filled with tension, joy and fear.”
Likewise, the show — which is set entirely in the annex — has all eight characters on stage for its duration.
“There is literally no escape for them,” Berlin said. “It’s like a big doll house. Everyone is visible all the time.”
The play is a fitting choice to open the 2015-2016 season at the PPT, according to Ted Pappas, producing artistic director.
“It reminds us, it moves us, and it inspires us,” he said. “It’s just a great play.”
Classrooms Without Borders, a non-profit educational organization led by Zipora Gur, will be providing hundreds of tickets for area students and teachers to see the production. Public and charter middle and high schools in the greater Pittsburgh area that serve disadvantaged communities qualify for free tickets. CWB, in cooperation with the Jack Buncher Foundation and individual contributors, is funding this initiative, which includes subsidies for transportation as well as the availability to schedule pre and post-workshops in the schools and a curriculum developed by CWB.
“This is wonderful opportunity to teach the Holocaust and genocide through the arts,” said Gur.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.