Director approaches 'Anne Frank' with documentary precision

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Emily Berman, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Larry Neumann Jr., J. Alexander Coe, Deborah Staples, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Gordon and Lauren Hirte in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” -PHOTO: Michael Brosilow

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” produced in 1955, only 10 years after the Holocaust won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. Playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacket based their work on the actual diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl living in Amsterdam who, at 13, went into hiding from the Nazis with her family.

For many people, “The Diary of Anne Frank“ constitutes their first exposure to the Holocaust. The book is still read in public schools as part of Holocaust education programs.

KJ Sanchez, who directs the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s current production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” is a specialist in what’s known as “documentary theater.” Based in New York, she is founder and CEO of American Records, a theater company that produces edgy, thought-provoking theater about contemporary issues, such as the piece “ReEntry,” based on interviews with U.S. Marines returning from combat.

Sanchez says her direction of “Anne Frank” is similar to the way she approaches the contemporary stories that American Records produces.

“Anne Frank is far from a dusty chestnut,” she says. “Context is always contemporary. A show like ‘Anne Frank’ is a story that took place more than 50 years ago, but it shows us today what we’re capable of as humans.”

Sanchez says “Anne Frank” demonstrates that even in the worst possible circumstances, we are capable of joy, compassion, love, humor, strength, courage, and dignity. The eight characters of the story hid in a secret annex for two years. Yet they got up every day, dressed and went about their lives in the cramped quarters of their hidden home.

There is great humor in the play, along with wisdom and spirit. A particularly touching moment occurs when Anne, by this time 15, has “a date” with 17-year-old Peter, who shares the Frank family’s cramped quarters. Although they can’t actually go out, each dresses up – she in a dress, a stole and jewelry, and he in a jacket and tie.

In many ways, the production is a total ensemble piece, and Sanchez, new to Milwaukee and to the Rep, created a tightly knit team among the company members and the out-of-town performers. Properties director Jim Guy says, “KJ is one of the smartest, most thoughtful, well-prepared directors I have ever worked with – a true listener and collaborator. When I told her what a pleasure it is working for her, she corrected me saying, ‘You mean working WITH me.’”

Sanchez’s passion for documentary theater has lent much to the Rep production. “In other productions I’ve seen of this play,” she says, “I’ve thought it odd that this is a play about confinement, yet the designers open up the stage, giving the impression of space.”

The design of her production, by scenic designer Dan Conway, is modeled after the historic space. The furniture replicates that of the secret annex in Amsterdam, and the square footage is exactly that of the original space. The actors have to create a sort of natural choreography, navigating the corners of the common space – the kitchen – just as the actual people must have.

Sanchez believes there might be an LGBT angle to the show. The dentist Mr. Dussel, who shares the hiding place with the Franks and the Van Daans, was in reality Fritz Pfeffer. He was married, divorced, engaged and had a grown son. The character Dussel, however, was never married and lived alone. He suddenly had to go in hiding, arriving at the annex in broad daylight. 

Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust, but the Nazis persecuted gays as well as other minorities. Ultimately they exterminated 12 million people, half of them Jews.

Why did the playwrights change the details of the real biography? “Maybe it’s me wishing there was a way to highlight the plight of gays,” Sanchez says. “It’s possible. I discussed the possibility with the company. But … it’s my secret.”

Sanchez says experiencing “Anne Frank” makes members of the audience better people. “Don’t be afraid to come to this play,” she says. “It’s entertaining, uplifting and surprisingly funny.”

On stage

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through Dec. 2 in the Quadracci Powerhouse at Milwaukee Repertory Theater, 108 E. Wells. Call 414-224-9490.Visit milwaukeerep.com.