Few memoirs are better known than Anne Frank’s. More than 70 years since it was first published, her diary is still on school reading lists and has been adapted for film, stage and television.
But there’s a side of Anne’s story that early adaptations didn’t explore: that of girl becoming a young woman and all that comes with it. That side will be on display in the Rockville Little Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” beginning Sept. 28.
You could say that the girl in this play is not your bubbe’s Anne Frank.
“I think there are certain issues regarding this story that rarely come to the fore,” says Pauline Griller-Mitchell, who’s directing the show, which runs through Oct. 7. “It is more about the transition that Anne goes through from the age of 13 to 15, and her discovery of the changes in her body, and her physical and sexual awakening.”
The script is the work of playwright Wendy Kesselman. It shares the same broad outline as the original, which was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and debuted on Broadway in 1955. But Kesselman’s adaptation, which first showed in 1997, pulls from different parts of Anne’s diary. Here she’s less the idealized embodiment of childhood. Instead, she’s a precocious, confused and moody adolescent — as likely to flirt with her housemate, Peter, as she is to turn inward and confide to her diary.
The play borrows heavily from source material that wasn’t available in 1955. Many of Anne’s more intimate and sexual writings were deliberately left out of the original book by Otto Frank, Anne’s father.
And the Rockville show will debut as even more of Anne’s writing has been discovered. Some historians have been interested in rethinking her image as something less pure and more like a typical teenager.
This year, the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam revealed diary writings featuring dirty jokes and musings on sex and prostitution. According to the museum, Anne had taped over these passages.
“Anyone who reads the passages that have now been discovered will be unable to suppress a smile,” Frank van Vree, who directs the Netherlands Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies and helped with the research, said in a statement at the time. “The ‘dirty’ jokes are classics among growing children. They make it clear that Anne, with all her gifts, was above all also an ordinary girl.”
But to Lauren Strauss, a professor of modern Jewish history at American University, recent portrayals of Anne don’t humanize her any more than the originals. Rather, they represent what the broader audience is ready to see and accept.
When Anne’s story was first told, the world at large didn’t comprehend the full scale of the Holocaust’s horrors, Strauss said. Anne’s diary was a way in that didn’t lead with the most horrific details. Now that the scale of the atrocity is understood, readers and audiences are ready to focus on other parts of her story.
“I think it reflects more about what our society is looking for at a given time,” Strauss said. “It’s more a reflection of what people need to see and need to learn about from Anne’s story, and hopefully, our maturity with the subject.”
In one scene, Anne (played by Julie Kashmanian, a theater student at George Mason University) proclaims feelings of attraction toward a female friend and a fixation with the female body.
“Sometimes, when I lie in bed at night, I feel a terrible urge to touch my breasts and listen to the beating of my heart,” Anne says. “Once, when I spent the night at Jopie’s, I could no longer restrain my curiosity about her body, which she always kept hidden from me. I asked her if, as proof of our friendship, we could touch each other’s breasts. She refused. I also had a terrible desire to kiss her, which I did.”
Keith Cassidy, who plays Otto Frank, said Anne’s sexuality is only a small component of the play, which centers on the same themes as the original: family and love in the face of incredible tragedy.
“There are a lot of very powerful dramas and movies and television shows that deal with the horrors of the Holocaust and deal with the horrors of the camps, but to me this is about what was lost,” Cassidy says. “You spend two hours just getting to know these people and getting to love these people. That’s the agony — it’s that it’s all gone at the end of the play.”
“Even the moments of happiness and joy and humanity are so painful because you know, of course, what’s going to happen,” Kashmanian says.
More than 60 years after Anne Frank’s story first came to the stage, Griller-Mitchell is hoping that the story still resonates with audiences, particularly with its more intimate look at the protagonist.
“What we’ve tried to do in this production is show the audience the progression from a 13-year-old child to a young woman on the verge of becoming a woman at 15 and all of the frustrations she’s feeling because she wants to explore that side of her life,” Griller-Mitchell says. “I think 30 years ago it would not have been as acceptable. We’re much more open about sexual things.”
As Anne puts it in one scene, it’s “an adventure, romantic and dangerous all at the same time.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Sept. 28-30 and Oct. 5-7 at Rockville Little Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. $20-$22; tickets available at rlt-online.org.