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Mercyhurst production reimagines Anne Frank story

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Mercyhurst Theatre Program presents The Diary of Anne Frank - an impassioned drama about the lives of eight people hiding from the Nazis in a concealed storage attic - for five performances April 7-10 in Taylor Little Theatre. The production, directed by Brett D. Johnson, Ph.D., is a staging of Wendy Kesselman’s adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama and marks Johnson’s 10th Mercyhurst production.

The Diary of Anne Frank captures the claustrophobic realities of daily existence for the families in hiding – their fear, their hope, their laughter, their grief. Each day of these two dark years, Anne's voice shines through: “When I write I shake off all my cares. But I want to achieve more than that. I want to be useful and bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met. I want to go on living even after my death!”

“Many of us are familiar with Anne’s story,” Johnson says, “so there’s a danger in the play feeling well-worn or sentimental. Our challenge, then, is to tell the story in a way that will allow people to see it afresh.”

Johnson and the creative team took their cues from Kesselman’s script, which premiered on Broadway in 1997 with Natalie Portman in the title role. This version restores references to Anne’s burgeoning sexuality as well as the diary’s overt Jewishness – the original play removed much of the source material’s ethnic content for fear of alienating mainstream audiences – and reasserts the historic Anne’s darker vision. Johnson says audiences can expect a minimalist staging: two small platforms and a ladder symbolize all three floors of the annex, and a few simple props, such as a fur coat or a music box, stand in for everything the characters have left behind.  

Johnson says he was attracted to the play by its humanity: “The context of the play is the Holocaust, but it’s really about what happens to eight characters in a room over the course of two years. The Franks were friendly with the Van Daans, but there’s no indication they were close friends. And Mr. Dussel is a stranger when he enters the annex. In that environment they could easily turn on each other, but they don’t. Despite the occasional argument, they find a way to cultivate a real community. In a moment when so much humanity was stripped away, the play reminds us that there were extraordinary moments of love, compassion, and even humor.”

Members of the cast say the process has been transformative. Senior Tonya Lenhart, who plays Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s employee who helps the families in hiding, says, “I’ve learned what it truly means for a person to help their friends, but also what hatred can do to a population. As long as there is intolerance in this world with people being discriminated against because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or the like, then every character’s story in this work is relevant and should be heard.” Similarly, freshman Rosie Pregler, who plays the title character, notes that the play is “a reminder of the humanity of those who are systematically oppressed by governments. It is critical for us to remember that we all deserve fair, equal treatment, especially those who may or may not be considered ‘citizens.’”

The Diary of Anne Frank features 13 Mercyhurst students: Rosie Pregler (Anne Frank), Michael Rowe (Otto Frank), Bethany Sulecki (Edith Frank), Abby Larimore (Margot Frank), Tonya Lenhart (Miep Gies), Owen Hitt (Peter Van Daan), Peter Vizza (Mr. Kraler), Jennie Cross (Mrs. Van Daan), Maxton Honeychurch (Mr. Van Daan), Aidan Giles (Mr. Dussel), Emmett Clark (First Man), Tyler Kirchmeir (Second Man), and Derek Mattson (Third Man).

The creative team includes set designer Erik Viker, lighting designer Madeleine Steineck, scenic artist Aaron White, assistant director Ashley Poletto, production stage manager Kathryn Schmitt, and assistant stage managers Caitlin Mininger, Leah Miori, and Katie Kruszynski.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday, April 7-9, at 8 p.m., and Saturday through Sunday, April 9-10, at 2 p.m. in Taylor Little Theatre on the Mercyhurst campus.

Single tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens/students, and $5 for youths and Mercyhurst students with ID. All performances are general admission, with doors opening 30 minutes prior to curtain.

Reserve your tickets today by calling 814-824-3000 or by visiting the box office in the lobby of the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center where cash and credit cards accepted. Tickets will also be on sale at the theatre beginning one hour before curtain (cash sales only).