The Diary of Anne Frank
Johnson County Fairgrounds — through April 30
Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 12, 1929. Her brief life is one of the most deeply known in history, thanks to a diary that she kept between 1942 and 1944 while hiding from the Gestapo in Amsterdam. Her father, Otto — the only family member who survived the concentration camps — found the diary on his return to Amsterdam after the war. Since its publication in 1947 it has been translated into more than 60 languages (the first English translation was in 1952). A play followed shortly, in 1955, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
The story of Anne Frank and her family has never ceased to be relevant. It resonates with generation after generation, because we never stop finding new reasons to hate one another, and we never stop benefiting from seeing the insanity of that through the eyes of children. Iowa City Community Theatre can’t have known, however, when including Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank in its 2016-17 season, that the United States would be in the place that we are now — that the spokesperson for the White House could refer blithely to “Holocaust centers,” for example.
“Our production is laced with the knowledge that we all have the ability to out-of-sight-out-of-mind the woes of the world,” director Rachel Howell said in an email. “We’ve tried to keep it all front and center, because we know that pretending that it doesn’t exist, or that it’s not affecting us so it’s not a concern, is toxic, and keeping anyone from knowing the truth, or being unwilling to see and know the truth ourselves, can have frightening repercussions.”
Howell continued, “Our lobby display includes a 30-plus foot timeline because we want to make it very clear that we are not special. We are all capable of the horrors we think we’re immune to. From Armenia to Rwanda, Russia, Syria and even America. The Holocaust is, unfortunately, not a singular instance.”
The Diary of Anne Frank is not just about facing the darkness, however. The power of theatre, at its strongest, is its ability to help us see ourselves in other people. According to Howell, Frank has that same skill, and it shines through this adaptation.
“Growing up can be incredibly lonely, but Anne explains things in such a way that we realize even though there might be unique differences in our personalities, we really are made up the same stuff. We have similar fears, instincts, wants and needs. We’re all just people.”
This is particularly clear in the stage version. “When we read the diary, we see the world through a budding teenager’s eyes. I’m sure we can all remember being that age. Our lives were full of all-of-the-emotions as our bodies and brains were in the love/hate relationship of puberty,” Howell said. However, she points out that “we see everyone in the annex through her eyes alone. The dramatized version allows us to really explore the others who lived with Anne during that time — and even to resolve some of their stories.”
ICCT’s production opened April 21 and runs through April 30, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $9-17. A new matinee performance has been added for the second Saturday, April 29 at 2 p.m. Tickets are specially priced at $10 for adults, $5 for students and seniors. “A two week run, it’s a flash in the pan,” Howell said, “but we’re aiming for a lasting effect on each person who walks through the door of ICCT.”
Part of building that lasting effect is the talkback scheduled for this Sunday, April 23 — Holocaust Remembrance Day. It will begin at 4 p.m., shortly after the end of the matinee performance, and it is free and open to the public, even those who did not attend the earlier performance. The matinee that day will have American Sign Language interpreters present, who will be interpreting the panel discussion as well.
“Our panelists were … chosen to represent a wide range of perspectives,” Howell said. “We knew, especially as there was an executive order targeting Muslim majority countries, that Muslim voices were essential to the discussion. Two young women from Students Against Hate & Discrimination will hold seats on the panel. Former Congressman Jim Leach will also join. In addition to being a scholar on the holocaust and gifted speaker on the topic, he has a unique perspective given his political background and intense resume in serving the public. Sonja Spear is the religious school principal from Agudas Achim Congregation in the Iowa City/Coralville area and brings a Jewish perspective to the discussion, as well as being the moderator for discussion.”
The Diary of Anne Frank is not intended to be an easy story to watch. Howell is not shy about calling people to that challenge. “We want people to see those who lived in an annex for over two years — unable to leave, no sun on their faces, no rain on their skin, no wind rushing by. For over two years they remained hidden, eating only beans and potatoes, quiet as mice for one noise could have alerted the authorities and killed them all. We want people to think about that. Because there’s no rule that it can’t happen again. To any of us. Most of us live such privileged lives.”
Yet Howell notes of Frank that, “It is miraculous in so many ways, her ability to stare darkness in the face and, in return, offer hope and love. You’d think it takes super human strength to do that. But then, Anne proves that we all have that capacity … More than anything I want my own kids to know a world where optimism and hope are warranted and rampant. Perhaps that’s a lofty dream, but, Anne has taught me that doesn’t make it any less essential.”