Woolf to direct Rep’s ‘Diary of Anne Frank’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

There are many reasons why Steve Woolf, artistic director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis wanted to direct “The Diary of Anne Frank,” but perhaps the most compelling, he says, is that “it’s a terrific story that needs to be told.”

He points out that the words from the diary of Anne Frank, the teenage Dutch Jewish girl reveal not only an extremely gifted writer, but also deeply personalizes the horrors of the Holocaust through her riveting eyewitness account of hiding with family members as well as the Van Daans and the dentist she called Dussel for two years in a “Secret Annexe” until they were betrayed and the Nazis came to arrest them and ship them off to the death camps. Anne and her sister Margot and their mother would die at Bergen-Belsen in 1945, while her father Otto survived Auschwitz.

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Woolf also likes that the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-honored play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett has been given a “definitive” revised adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, and The Rep will be the first large theater outside of New York to present the acclaimed revised version.

“The Hackett-Goodrich version came out in the 1950s and people were not ready for an out and out version. They made the play a little sweeter. It was a little sanitized,” Woolf explains. “Anne’s father Otto, when he first had the diary published in 1947, had taken things out. Anne goes from ages 13 to 15 over the course of the play, and she is discovering herself as a young woman. She wrote about that (including her attraction to Peter Van Daan) in the diary. That was stripped from the first publication of the diary. More of that is put back in Kesselman’s version. And her version is a little more ‘Jewish’ in that it isn’t as neutral on this aspect as the Hackett version.”

Woolf, who this past summer directed a production of the play for the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre in mid-Missouri, and who also recently visited the house in which the Frank family was hidden, sat down with the Jewish Light to discuss this new production and his thoughts on the play.

Miep Gies, the Christian woman who helped hide the Frank family in Amsterdam, and who found and protected Anne Frank’s diary, just died at age 100, adding a note of poignancy to the timing of the Rep production. Any thoughts on that?

What was interesting to me, when she died last week, was the amount of coverage that it got. A 100-year-old lady who was clearly a hero, and who had done amazing things, of course, I would pay attention to it because I am doing to direct the play, and had visited the house in Amsterdam this spring. But the fact is it got worldwide coverage.

So that speaks to the power of the story, and the fact that Anne Frank’s diary and her story is still important. It hasn’t lost its potency in the 21st century. Someone like Miep, who did what she did because she said she didn’t like the Nazis, and put herself and her family at risk, along with the Frank family and the Van Daans (whose real name was the Van Pels), plus the dentist Dussel, but still 60 years later her death got all this coverage. I’m impressed by the resonance of the story, the fact that it will never go away,

And Miep Gies was the last survivor among the people in the true story of Anne Frank and her diary.

Yes, she was the last. They are now all gone. That’s why the play is so important. Even though it’s a play, it’s still an adaptation of Anne’s words, it’s a true story. And the survivors are at an age that like Miep Gies, they’re going to pass on. Miep was iconic. She was this very kind woman, who just did what she had to do. Also, Miep’s husband was in the Resistance. They were also hiding someone in their own home. Look, it’s a remarkable story.

Tell me about your visit to Anne’s family home with its Secret Annexe.

It was last spring, in May. It’s pretty powerful stuff, because the spirit is still there. There is very little furniture left. Otto Frank, when he came back after the war, wanted to leave it looking like it did when the Nazis were done, and they had taken out all the furniture. There’s some remnants still there. It’s fascinating, because first of all people always talk about the ‘attic’ or ‘annexe’ and in some ways there’s more room than you think there’s going to be. Then again, eight people living together for two years any place and you can’t go out, becomes small.

Are any of Anne’s movie star magazine photos still up on the wall?

Yes, her movie stuff, including pictures of Deanna Durbin and some others, those are still up. There are marks on the wall, where Otto would mark the heights of Margot and Anne, the pencil marks are there. I think what’s interesting is how steep the staircase is. They had a bookcase, which just covered the stairway up. Just to think that these eight people lived there for two years, and above this warehouse. There were also some workers who knew they were there who got them food and rations, things like that. So, the fact it was kept secret for so long is quite remarkable. You are struck by being in the same place where all these people lived for those two years.

Had you already decided to do the play before you visited Amsterdam?

Yes, we were in London last spring, and so it was a quick flight to Amsterdam to see the home. I thought I should go.

How has the relevance of the play changed since the days of the original and the film version in which the St. Louis-born Jewish actress Shelley Winters won an Oscar for her portrayal of Mrs. Van Daan?

Yes, by the way, the Oscar is at the Frank home in Amsterdam. I found that strange. As to the relevance, it is still relevant. People are still subjected to harsh, harsh conditions. Governments continue to mistreat people. You look at Rwanda and Darfur, etc. The depravity of what goes on in the world is still shocking. Of course nothing, nothing compares to what the Nazis did, because it was so organized.

But outside of the political realm, it’s the story of this young girl, actually all of these people, who found a way to survive. She wrote about and became an inspiration to almost anybody having hardship in their lives.

It’s a testament to what the spirit can do. I mean, 60 years later and we’re still talking about it.

The Diary of Anne Frank

When: Feb. 10-March 7

Where: Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves

Cost: $21-68

More info: 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org. The production is appropriate for children 13 and older.