Anne Frank story inspires actors at Palo Alto Playhouse

by Paul Freeman, Jewish Bulletin Correspondent

Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs to hear the story of Anne Frank.

That became increasingly clear to theater director Judith Dresch during a recent trip to Moscow.

"While there, I began reading in the papers about all the uprising of anti-Semitism, of the desecration of the Jewish cemeteries in Germany, of the neo-Nazi groups and of the denial that the Holocaust ever existed," said Dresch, whose relatives in Poland were persecuted by the Nazis during the war.

"We cannot forget the Holocaust," she says. "We cannot forget Hitler. Future generations must keep all of that in front of them, as an example of the worst that can happen, so it will never happen again."

Dresch's experiences in Russia inspired her to mount a new production of "The Diary of Anne Frank" at Palo Alto's Manhattan Playhouse. The show opens tonight.

The play, set in 1942 Nazi-occupied Holland, transforms the Holocaust from numbing statistics into a deeply personal experience. Eight people - two families and a dentist - hide in an attic, trying, against all odds, to escape the concentration camps.

The audience is drawn into the claustrophobic atmosphere, privy to the characters innermost fears, pains and dreams. Humor leavens the proceedings just enough, making the poignant passages even more affecting. What makes the play a classic is its ability to offer an uplifting aura, transcending the tragedy.

Jack Weissman, the Los Altos Hills resident who plays Otto Frank, Anne's father, visited the famous Anne Frank house while visiting Amsterdam; he draws on that experience in his performance. "When I was there, I imagined how I would feel in those circumstances. It was a very emotional thing," he recalls.

"In the final scene of the play, [when] Mr. Frank returns to the place where they had been hidden and reads the diary and thinks about Anne. It's so moving. I'm not a professional actor, but when I read the lines, it makes me want to cry."

Weissman, some of whose relatives in Russia where killed by the Nazis in World War II, believes that audiences are moved by the story even if they have no direct connection to the events.

"You really get lost in this play," he says. "It's so involving. You feel for these people. It has a message that should never be forgotten."

The other Jewish cast member, Mark Solomon of Redwood City - who portrays Mr. Kraler, the Dutchman who hides and feeds the Franks - agrees that the plays impact is wide-ranging.

"It's a story that has meaning perpetually, not just in its own time frame," he says. "It displays hope in time of difficulty. It's an important play not only to the Jewish audience, but for all people. It happens to be about Jews, but it relates to persecution generally."

Anita Khalat Bari of San Jose, a Persian who plays the Dutch secretary Mrs. Miep, is a case in point. "When I saw the movie of 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' I was about 10," she recalls. "It made a great impression on me at that age, the way they had to be indoors so long, never seeing daylight. The way Anne always kept track of everything was remarkable. It inspired me to start writing a diary of my own. Her story has always stayed in my mind."

Similarly, 25-year old Natalie Skelton of Sunnyvale, who plays Anne Frank, feels a particular kinship with the character.

"I feel that I know her, that I've gone through some of the things that she went through, not in terms of the Holocaust or the horrors, but in the way that all adolescent girls share similar experiences," she says. "We go through basically the same things, no matter what the country or what the circumstances. I think that's the reason the play has been so popular for so long."

But for Skelton, the play has a relevance that goes far beyond the coming-of-age theme - particularly for young audiences. "To be persecuted for your religious beliefs is absolutely ludicrous," she says. "The play is so important in this day and age, because of all the hate groups that are around now."

"The Diary of Anne Frank" runs at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through December 5, 1992 at the non-profit Manhattan Playhouse.

by Paul Freeman, Jewish Bulletin Correspondent