This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of Nazi concentration camps. It also marks the 70th anniversary of the death of one of the war's most iconic figures: Anne Frank. The Jewish teenager’s diary, which chronicles her experience hiding from Nazi occupiers, is read worldwide.
Riverwalk Theatre is commemorating the anniversary with the staged version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Producer Gary Mitchell is also a cast member. He plays Mr. Kraler, one of the people who helped hide Anne and her companions. Mitchell believes the message of the play is still vital today.
"We thought this was a story that needs to be told to newer generations," he said. "Though the countries and the characters change, there is always some kind of persecution going on in the world. It never ends.”
To help underscore the message of the play, Riverwalk is bringing in Holocaust survivor and public speaker Irene Butter for a talkback immediately following Sunday’s performance on Oct. 25. Butter was held at Bergen-Belsen, the same concentration camp that Anne Frank was taken to and ultimately died in.
The talkback and the production aim not only to remind viewers of important history lessons, but also to demonstrate the strength of survivors.
"We felt that not only do we give good entertainment, but we offer a civics lesson as well," Mitchell said.
Sally Hecksel, who plays Anne, also emphasized the value of the play's message.
"It's really a powerful story, to look at something like this from the point of view of a young person," she said.
Throughout her diary, Anne candidly describes the tension between the eight occupants of the "secret annex," the small apartment where she hid with her family for nearly two years. Hecksel said that Anne’s diary "shows how people really are, not how we'd like them to be."
The intimate venue and small set aid in representing the cramped atmosphere that the residents of the secret annex endured.
"We have been really fortunate to have an amazing crew who have been very period in our props, costumes and how the annex is set up,” Hecksel said. “You're completely submerged in the world."
Though the situation for those in hiding is tough, and the story of Anne Frank ends in tragedy, the play is not meant to be depressing. At least not according to Mitchell.
"The show is actually a positive show," he explained. "It's a story about the human soul and how tough it can be, what it can endure."
In her writings, Anne reveals herself to be a determinedly optimistic person, despite the horror she goes through.
"I still believe," she writes, "In spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."
“The Diary of Anne Frank”
Riverwalk Theatre Oct. 22-25, Oct. 29-Nov. 1 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday $15/$12 seniors Friday- Sunday $10/$8 seniors Thursday Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com