Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ offers a new look at a well-known story of hope in the face of tremendous adversity.

With the passing every year of Holocaust survivors and their eyewitness testimonials, Anne Frank’s universal story is more crucial than ever to help reinforce the rallying cry of “Never Again,” says Ian Gallanar, founder and artistic director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore.

“It goes without saying that it’s incredibly important to teach about the Holocaust,” Gallanar says. “That includes telling multiple generations about what happened. ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ is a play that is sophisticated, complex and accessible to both younger and older generations.”

From April 26 to May 26, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will present “The Diary of Anne Frank” — a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett based on “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl” — at the theater at 7 S. Calvert St. The production is part of what the Baltimore arts community — including the Baltimore Museum of Art, Morgan State University’s Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center, and the Jewish Museum of Maryland — is calling a “Spring of Remembrance.”

“There are a handful of organizations doing Holocaust-related exhibits, so we have teamed up to create a single outreach program,” says Lesley Malin, managing director of the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. “The Holocaust is something being less taught, and we recognize that the last of the Holocaust survivors are dying off. For the newer generations, that living link is disappearing so it’s especially important to focus on this now.”

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a contemporary adaptation of the classic book — as adapted by playwright Wendy Kesselman — consisting of seven long scenes, most of them beginning with a family trying to establish a sense of normalcy in a highly abnormal situation and ending with reminders of the horrific circumstances in which they find themselves.

“My feelings about the diary and the play are that it’s an amazing intersection between the diary of a little girl growing up with all the universal issues of growing up, while at the same time dealing with the most critical of circumstances,” says Eve Muson, the show’s director. “It’s a family drama played out under extreme pressure within three rooms.”

Anne Frank, 1941 © AFF/AFH – Basel/Amsterdam
Anne Frank, 1941 
 © AFF/AFH – Basel/Amsterdam

“The Diary of Anne Frank” begins on the protagonist’s 13th birthday in June of 1942, with entries about friends, schoolyard gossip and crushes. The play ends when Anne is 15, with diary entries about isolation, loneliness and coping with her Jewish identity in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands.

“What we don’t always remember is that Anne was a brilliant writer,” says Muson, an associate professor in the theater department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “During her time in the annex, the family heard on the radio that the Netherlands wanted to collect diaries, letters and journals from regular people during the war. Anne got inspired by this call and rewrote her diary in anticipation of submitting it for publication. So this piece of work isn’t just a young girl’s stream of consciousness. It shows the development of a very talented and sensitive artist.”

The two families living in the secret annex with Anne were eventually discovered by the Nazis, with the exception of Anne’s father, Otto Frank, and perished in the Holocaust. After the war, Otto Frank made his way back to the Netherlands from Auschwitz and helped realize Anne’s dream of becoming a writer by publishing her diary. The book became an international phenomenon and has been used as an educational tool and an introduction to the Holocaust.

“For many kids, the diary is their first exposure into studying the Holocaust,” says Muson. “My sister is an eighth-grade teacher, and this diary is still these students’ primary document and the door that takes them into their Holocaust studies.”

In addition to the performances for the general public, the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company will present matinee performances for students from five schools in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. The play will be presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service of New York.

“This is a story that needs to be told over and over again,” says Gallanar. ”Anti-Semitism has been in the news recently, and this kind of work can be an antidote to those kinds of beliefs. Theater has a way of uniquely showing what we have in common as human beings, and if people can walk away with a clear understanding that we are all in this together, I think our work has been successful.”

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Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.