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‘Diary of Anne Frank,’ coming to ATC, never more relevant

Naama Potok as Edith Frank and Anna Lentz as Anne Frank in Arizona Theatre Company’s upcoming production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ (Goat Factory Media Entertainment)

David Ira Goldstein spent a week in Amsterdam this October as he prepared to direct “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which opens at Arizona Theatre Company later this month.

Along with the Anne Frank House, the former ATC artistic director visited the National Holocaust Museum, The Resistance Museum, synagogues and other Jewish sites, to “really try and steep myself in the truth of the story,” he says.

He wants the ATC production “to honor those who lived this story … to be true to the material in both its despair and its hope, its love and its hatred.”

The play portrays both the claustrophobic reality of eight people hiding (from the Nazis) in an attic and Anne’s transcendent spirit as she comes of age, still believing “in spite of every      thing, that people are truly good at heart.”

For the story’s current relevance, “you only have to look at the news every day and every week,” Goldstein says, citing the recent Anti-Defamation League report that said anti-Semitic incidents in Arizona had tripled last year; the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August; and “the rise of the alt-right.”

“Every day we’re facing the same issues that this play deals with, of anti-Semitism and hatred. There couldn’t be a more important time to be doing this play,” he says, adding that since 1952, when the diary was published in English, there have been “many important times to do this play and to tell this story” — and especially to expose young people to it.

While Goldstein’s own family fled the Russian pogroms in the early 20th century, immigrating to the United States, his “Anne Frank” cast includes Naama Potok, the daughter of author Chaim Potok, whose Polish family lost more than 100 people in the Holocaust.

Potok will lead prologue discussions before each ATC performance, except for school matinees, just as she did at Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., which co-produced ATC’s production, with performances in February and March.

Only rarely has Potok mentioned her family’s history during these discussions.

“The prologue is a conversation,” she says, that starts with asking the audience to remember when they might have read the diary or seen the play or the film, or visited the annex in Amsterdam.

“It invites them to ask questions about the set” or other design elements, says Potok, who notes that Goldstein’s concept creates a sense of space shrinking in on the players.

If people are open to discussing it, the prologue may also be “about what’s going on politically in our country today and what’s going on globally … and the danger we’re facing when voices are being silenced and people are deciding who has the right to be heard and who doesn’t,” she says.

For some, who may be weary of politics, “it’s very difficult to be reminded of the need to hope and of the necessity to choose to try to communicate rather than to hate,” she says.

On both sides of the spectrum, she says, people have a tendency to shut down when they hear views from the other side. “They become indignant and defensive and resistant.”

Potok asks people “to consider the possibility that in fact we really need to sit in a space of profound disagreement … to sit across the table from someone who triggers us and say, ‘What is it that’s grieving you?’”

In playing Anne Frank’s mother, Edith, who is not portrayed sympathetically in the diary, Potok says that as with any role, she tries “to understand who this human being is.”

Researching Edith Frank, she’s found more information has come to light in recent years, including many photographs she had not seen before. Edith loved being a wife and mother, Potok says, and also loved to dress elegantly and to entertain. 

Anne and her mother did end up being close, Potok says. “Margot and Anne are what kept Edith alive in the concentration camp. She died only after the girls were taken from her.”

ATC’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” will run April 21-May 12 in Tucson before opening in Phoenix May 17.  For ticket information, visit arizonatheatre.org.

Congratulations to Fatemah Dili, winner of of the AJP’s contest for four tickets to the show in Tucson.

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