Pittsburgh Public Theater opens season with “Anne Frank”

After every rehearsal of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” actress Remy Zaken goes home and sobs as she tries to reestablishment the distance between herself and the famous holocaust victim.

With May 8 marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi regime, Frank’s diary remains one of the most moving reminders of the Holocaust’s destructive events. The Pittsburgh Public Theater will honor this memorandum by adapting Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s Pulitzer and Tony Award winning play into its seasonal debut from Sept. 24 to Oct. 25.

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” the classic memoir of a girl who comes of age hiding from Nazis in her attic, is starting off the PPT’s 41st season at the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh. Seventy years later, the theater is adamant not to let us forget WWII’s atrocities, which is why tickets for anyone aged 26 and under are half price.

“The purpose of why we do this is to bear witness to these events and to remind people that it definitely happened, and is still happening today,” said Zaken, who plays Frank. “We just have to keep telling the story over and over again.”

As an actor playing a role as tragic as Frank, Zaken said the burden of carrying the character’s emotions and experiences can be too great to bear sometimes.

Zaken described her approach to each character as a separate layer of skin that she must remove at the end of every day. If not, the hardship of the character will etch its way into her life and stop her from transitioning from the performance to normal life.

When it comes to reviving the teenage Frank, who was 15 when she died, Zaken said she must approach the role cautiously, with an air of juvenile casuality.

“I know that [Frank] had a lighter side, she liked to play pranks,” she said. “And she had a serious side, she wanted to be a journalist, so she is just an ordinary person going through extraordinary circumstances.” While this fact can be reassuring, it doesn’t stop her from sobbing after every show.

As a Jewish actor, Zaken dreamed of playing Frank ever since she started professionally acting at 13. She was cast for the role 13 years later after acting in various other somber theater performances, including the role of a young girl assaulted by her father in “Home Street Home,” and TV shows, like “Law and Order” and “Gossip Girl.”

Randy Kovitz, who plays Anne’s father, Otto Frank, is a fierce supporter of the play’s intensity.

“We shouldn’t have any sensitivities when it comes to telling the story,” Kovitz said. “It’s important that people see the emotional connections and the horrific events being played out in front of them so they never forget.”

Kovitz recalled a recent story an elderly couple who survived the Holocaust, but was savagely attacked in Amsterdam and called names like “dirty Jews.” Kovitz encourages the younger generation to watch the play “in its raw form so everyone can see the horrors that happened to get rid of anti-semitism.” Also a Jewish actor, Kovitz hopes to create an emotional connection with the audience to showcase the unfairness of the war.

Chris Laitta, playing Anne’s mother, Edith, said sharing compassion and empathy between the characters is the key to creating a successful performance.

“No one knows the real story of Anne Frank because she had two diaries that Otto ended up compiling into one,” Laitta said. “That’s why it’s so important for us as actors to create a bond between the characters and to show the humanity that was lost in the pages.”

Part of that humanity comes through comedy. David Wohl, who plays Mr. Van Daan, another Holocaust victim who hid with the Franks, said he understands the necessity of adding a bit of humor to the tension so the audience can connect with the characters. Too much emotion may repel them.

“Just because something is a drama, doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of humor,” Wohl said. “And you can’t overstate the gravity of it.”

Wohl also emphasized the importance of not trivializing the story as actors, given the weight of the situation, and finding the middle ground between how much of the self goes into their characters.

Zaken said moving her audience is a difficult part of every role she plays, but the real challenge is separating real life from the character’s experience.

“Every person has a different fingerprint, everyone has a different je ne sais quoi, and after all of my research, I just have to bring my version of seriousness to the role,” she said. “At the end of the day, I, as Anne, have to be in the moment, but I, as Remy, have to know that when you let it pierce you, it really does pierce you all the way through.”