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March 5, 2008

Unlocking a historical 'Diary'

JET production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ tells powerful story of courage

DETROIT — In the face of seemingly insurmountable horror, the notion that any one person — much less a child — can make a difference seems naïve. But as Anne Frank demonstrated, even a child has the power to leave a lasting imprint on the world.

An ordinary girl whose poignant journal documented her family’s efforts to escape the Nazis during World War II, her story, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” remains required reading in many classrooms today. And each year, the West Bloomfield-based Jewish Ensemble Theatre brings that account to life on stage for students across the state. JET’s productions of “Diary” run weekdays March 3-14 at the Detroit Institute of Art’s restored historic theater, with a Sunday performance for the general public at 12:30 p.m. March 9.

The play includes the pivotal moments of the book in a way that’s “never heavy-handed,” said Kevin T. Young of Ferndale, who plays Peter VanDaan.

“I think reading it is a personal experience, and when you see it onstage, it’s a shared experience, not only with the actors, but of course with the rest of the audience, too,” said Nancy Kammer of Grosse Pointe Park, who plays Mrs. Frank.

That experience has an impact on young audiences.

“When they see it on the stage, it’s a visceral reaction that they have,” explained director Evelyn Orbach of West Bloomfield, who’s also JET’s artistic director. “It’s what live theater is all about. They see real people playing real people, and it’s easy to understand what’s happening between them and to feel what the actors are feeling.”

For the actors, this is more than just another job. Andrew Huff of Hamtramck, who plays Otto Frank, is in his third year (and third role) with the show. Like co-star Patrick Cronin of Bloomfield, in his second year and playing Mr. Kraler, Huff admits he was initially excited to be working for JET. For both actors, it became much more.

“Just having gone through the experience and taking a tour of the Holocaust Museum and talking with survivors, and then kind of realizing what we’re doing here for the kids, it quickly became apparent to me that it was the most important piece of theater that I’ve ever done in my life,” Huff said.

Even though the longtime Grosse Pointe City resident recently relocated to Tennessee, Philip Fox returned for his eighth year, playing Mr. VanDaan.

“It can make a difference, and I think that we all feel very strongly about that,” Fox said.

“I think entertainment nowadays — especially for children — has gotten to be so meaningless and so mindless, and as actors and actresses who have chosen to stay on in theater, we all recognize that we have a responsibility to say something with our work,” said Shannon Ferrante of Ferndale, who plays Margot Frank.

In her seventh year as Anne Frank, Sara Catheryn Wolf of St. Clair Shores said this story reminds audiences that “essentially the world hasn’t learned anything, because there is still genocide in the world (and) there are still people looking the other way.” It’s a powerful wakeup call for adults and children alike.

“Most of these kids don’t know anything about places like Darfur,” Wolf continued. “They don’t know what happened in Rwanda. They don’t know that this stuff really happens. … And this is their doorway to understanding that they have the key to changing the world.”

As Miep, one of the people who tries to protect the Franks and VanDaans, Aphrodite Nikolovski of Birmingham concurs.

“As an actor, I think it’s very exciting to learn something new about history and … to be able to convey that to an audience,” she said. “It’s just important to show people that one person can make a difference. Human life is precious and people can be good, and we all have it in us to do that.”

JET Education Outreach Coordinator Mary Davis of Detroit is passionate about “Diary,” a show she’s been involved with since JET first produced it for the main stage in 1995. Since the student matinees started roughly a decade ago, she said some 55,000-60,000 kids have seen the show — many for free, thanks to generous sponsors and foundations.

“We try to keep (tickets) as inexpensive as possible, so as many people can see it as possible,” Davis said. “It’s important for kids to be thinking about something other than clothes and music.”

Although weekday audiences are mostly school groups, JET officials say the general public is also welcome. At press time, there were still tickets available for the weekday performances, which start at 10 a.m. — except March 12, when the play starts at 10:30 a.m.; those tickets are $8. The only weekend performance, at 12:30 p.m. March 9, costs $14 for adults, $8 for students. Tickets can be purchased in advance or at the door; the DIA is located at 5200 Woodward in the Cultural Center, and the theater entrance is on John R. For tickets or more information, or to be placed on the mailing list for next year’s production, call (248) 788-2900 or e-mail Mary Davis at out reach@jettheatre.org.