The chance to perform in The Diary of Anne Frank was a special draw to three Jewish actors from Newton, Pa., who will join the Pennington Players for March performances of the play at the Kelsey Theatre in West Windsor.
“The story always meant something to me,” said Paul Cohen. “I think we all have an obligation to make sure we never forget, and I think this story and putting on the play really do that.”
Cohen plays Hermann Van Daan (Hermann van Pels in real life), one of the eight people, including Anne Frank and her family, who hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944. Sheldon Zeff plays Mr. Kraler, a Christian who brings food and clothing to the hidden Jews. And Sara Thier is playing Anne’s mother, Edith.
Director Judi Parrish, said Cohen, has created a distinctive production, whose script was adapted in 1997 by Wendy Kesselman from the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Cohen noted Parrish’s commitment to sharing with the actors her research on the story and its characters, adding, “She really wants to make sure we don’t just present the characters as written in the play, but really wants us to know who those characters are.”
A board member at Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pa., and a law partner at Curtin & Heefner in Doylestown, Pa., Cohen was inspired to get back into theater a couple of years ago by his then 11-year-old daughter.
Cohen talked about his insights into Van Daan, a business partner of Otto Frank who hid in the secret annex along with his wife, Auguste, and son, Peter. “He is scared, he is angry, he is frightened,” said Cohen. “He is a loving husband, but I don’t think he has learned to express that to his wife or son.”
The Van Daans, Cohen continued, are very “outward with our emotions,” as opposed to the more reserved Franks. “I enjoyed playing him because he captures a lot of the fear and anxiety that came out while they were in hiding,” he said.
Zeff’s character, Kraler, is Otto Frank’s employee and one of the people who brought the Franks food and clothing for two years in their hiding place in the annex. “As a human being, if you don’t have any soul, any heart about what is going on in this play — people have to hide just to live their lives — if you don’t have any compassion toward that, you have issues, you have problems,” said Zeff.
A New Jersey sales rep for wholesale wine and spirits, Zeff describes himself as a Jew who celebrates the holidays but is “not now practicing on a regular basis.” Zeff has been acting union and nonunion for 40 years, including 15 productions of Fiddler on the Roof, in eight of them as Tevye.
“It’s mind boggling that [the Holocaust] actually happened, and the reason I’m doing this play is the importance of telling the story and keeping it alive,” Zeff said. “There are so many people out there who just don’t realize that six million Jews died, and it was on all our watches.”
Thier said that in portraying Edith, she has the challenge of playing someone whose nature is opposite her own. “Edith was much more religious than Otto. She is very conservative and keeps her emotions in check,” said Thier, whose first foray into acting since college was last October.
Edith Frank, who finds her younger daughter, Anne, to be “too much the free spirit,” is much more like her studious older daughter, Margot. “She tries to be a good mother, but she is not comfortable with Anne’s voraciousness for life,” Thier said. With her own daughter facing middle school, Thier sees in Edith’s relationship to Anne the issues faced by many parents of teens: “How do you relate to a child who may be different from you, who doesn’t listen to you, or doesn’t respect you?”
Calling herself “Jewish by birth” and a “cultural Jew,” Thier said she has been deeply affected by the Holocaust. Her mother used to interview survivors for Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive of Holocaust Testimony. “I think all of us who are here and alive are survivors in a way,” she said.
She said she remembers her deep emotional response to the reality of the Holocaust while watching a PBS show in her 30s. “It was the first time I saw footage of throwing people into mass graves,” she said. “I was stunned. I was so taken aback. This really hit home for me.”