There is no shortage of routes to take when learning about the Holocaust: visiting the museums, reading the books, watching the movies or talking to the survivors. But, as Shirley Tannenbaum, head of Point Park University’s acting program, said, there’s nothing quite like “actually standing in the shoes of those characters.”
Those characters are Anne Frank and the people who populated that infamous Amsterdam annex, immortalized in Frank’s diary and again when the diary was adapted for the stage. This weekend, Point Park University’s Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland will open “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Tannenbaum, who directed the show, approached it knowing, “Here’s an opportunity to pass on the knowledge of the Holocaust to another generation. One of my goals was to make sure this was a learning experience for the cast.” To ensure it was, Tannenbaum brought the entire cast and crew on a trip to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where the show’s Jewish and non-Jewish players could explore their own feelings towards the Holocaust. “Here’s a generation of young people in their late teens and early 20s, immersing themselves in this period of history and really coming to identify themselves with people — that’s what you must do as an actor,” said Tannenbaum.
According to cast members, both the museum visit and doing their own research was crucial to playing their parts. But to truly understand the roles, said Point Park junior Philip Feldman, who plays teenager Peter Van Daan, is impossible.
“For me, it’s very unfathomable because I just don’t know what it was like. Personality-wise, I could relate; but situationally, I never could,” he said. “I want so badly to know what I would’ve done, had I lived then. This show puts me in a light where I can play with that.”
The student actors, then, had to imagine their way into the very real characters. Feldman connected because “Peter was just a 16-year-old Jewish boy. That was me three years ago. His character hit me close to home; I saw myself in that role.”
“I just tried to be as truthful and faithful to who she was, as I learned,” said Maren Fischer, who plays Edith Frank. “But I also have to put my own spin on it. I didn’t change anything about her, but I bring my own characteristics to her.”
To Tannenbaum, directing the show was a way to reopen her eyes to the horrors of the Holocaust that we are so often immune to.
“Growing up learning about the Holocaust as a Jewish woman, I’ve been kind of inundated with it. But doing the research in preparation for directing the show, I realized there was still so much I didn’t know,” she said. “One could spend a life studying the Holocaust. So much affected me all over again, when I thought I’d become somewhat used to seeing these horrors.”
Tannenbaum used a newer adaptation of the classic play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, this one by Wendy Kesselman. The new version premiered on Broadway in 1997, and received two Tony nominations in 1999; it sharpens the focus of the former show by compacting the story, said Tannenbaum.
“In the 50’s, when this was originally presented, it was very close to the war and there was a lot of sensitivity, a lot of concern. [The playwrights] didn’t want to make the characters too Jewish. They wanted to achieve a universality,” she said. “They downplayed the reason why these people were in the attic altogether. This one does not.” When Peter is introduced, he is using a pocketknife to tear the yellow fabric star from his clothing. One scene includes a Chanuka party. But at its core, Kesselman’s adaptation tells the same heartbreaking tale, sprinkled with hope and positivity.
“The show is mostly about finding ways to live, and how life is beautiful, even in hard times. We tried to have a balance there,” said Fischer, who just graduated from Point Park this semester.
Making the show even more powerful will be several post-performance discussions with local Holocaust survivors. On June 5, Moshe Baran will speak to the audience about his time in a Polish ghet- to and his choice to fight back as a partisan. On June 12, Fritz Ottenheimer will speak of his experience emigrating to the United States in 1939, joining the U.S. Army and liberating camps in 1945. The cast will also perform five times for school groups, with Baran, Francine Gelernter and Shulamit Bastacky.
For Tannenbaum and her cast, the production has been an emotional one. Going into this weekend’s opening, Tannenbaum said, “This is different than any other play they’ve ever done before. I know they’ll never forget it.”
Want to go?
Runs May 27-June 12 on Fridays at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.
Rauh Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland
Call (412) 392-8000 for more information
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)