WARWICK—Linked by a story that has long been known for its somber outcome, three young local actors, among a cast of 10, are focusing on the powerful human spirit that prevails in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which opened March 26 and runs through April 13 at Ocean State Theatre Company.
At a recent rehearsal, producing artistic director Amiee Turner shared her thoughts on the company’s adaptation of this drama.
“Anne’s diary doesn’t—and obviously can’t—focus on the outcome of the story,” Turner said. “Rather the diary concentrates on her life, and that is the artistic representation that we bring to the stage.”
One of the youngest cast members, 18-year-old Alexandra Fortin of West Greenwich recognizes that her role as Margot Frank, Anne’s sister, offers a true portrayal of a sibling relationship.
“We might not get along all the time, but we have a real bond,” said Fortin, noting that the characters Margot and Anne show how their solidarity, despite their normal teenage quarrels, can help them endure the most terrible ordeal of their lives.
Of course, this ordeal is their time spent hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Cloistered in what they called the ‘secret annex’ of rooms above Mr. Frank’s business office in Amsterdam from July 1942 to August 1944, 13-year-old Anne, Margot and their parents, along with the Van Daans family and another acquaintance, Mr. Dussel, find temporary refuge from the Gestapo’s evil intentions of deporting Jews to work camps or death camps.
Coventry resident Tommy Labanaris portrays Mr. Dussel, a dentist who at first cautiously accepts the Frank family’s offer of a hiding place.
“Mr. Dussel is a meticulous man of science who butts heads with a capricious teenage girl,” Labanaris said.
Although Mr. Dussel has a difficult time adjusting to the close quarters, Labanaris believes Dussel is “extremely grateful to be accepted into protection and ultimately finds his place in the family unit.”
Again, the good and positive features of these characters surface in a time of crisis.
Sarah Pierce of North Kingstown plays Mr. Frank’s office secretary, Miep Gies, who risked her own life almost every day to bring groceries, toiletries and, perhaps most important of all, news from the outside world into the confines of the secret annex.
Pierce greatly admired the character’s devotion and tenacity.
“Miep became very close to the family. She was such a strong woman and very loyal,” said Pierce.
It was Miep who actually found Anne’s diary scattered across the floor of the secret annex after the Nazis raided the Franks’ makeshift home and arrested all occupants. Miep saved the diary for one year, hoping to return it to Anne herself. Sadly, after Anne’s death at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in March 1945, Miep was able to give Anne’s precious journal to Mr. Frank—the sole survivor of the siege. He published Anne’s work in 1947.
Certainly, “The Diary of Anne Frank” carries a weighty message, and Turner acknowledges the responsibility this carries. However, she said the preparation remains the same. “I approach every play from the page out,” said Turner.
She added, “Many people are going to come in with preconceived emotions with such a well-known topic. Afterall, World War II and the Holocaust are such an important time in our world’s history. Almost everyone has some connection … and we can use that to our advantage.”
One such benefit is that the audience will know the general setting and social climate of the story. Consequently, OSTC can stay true to its adaptation, which is staged completely within the four walls of the secret annex—without scene changes.
“I think some stories are told better in a play than on film; this is one of them,” said Turner. “These constraints can give the audience a greater visceral understanding of the characters,” she said.
In Fortin, Labanaris and Pierce, Turner saw the potential to work within these constraints and concentrate on conveying the characters’ relationships and their daily lives together.
“Alex [Fortin] brings a thoughtful presence to the role of Margot often without many lines,” said Turner. “I’ve worked with Tommy [Labanaris] before. He’s a sensitive actor who can handle less likeable characters like Mr. Dussel,” she said.
And Turner commented on “Sarah’s [Pierce’s] practicality and sweetness,” which are integral traits of Miep.
For these actors, diving into the drama’s serious roles was a departure from recent work. But their preparation did not vary.
Labanaris recently appeared in OSTC’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor and Les Misérables. The 33-year-old graduate of the University of New Hampshire said he was fortunate to travel on national tours for 10 years after college and now, since moving to Rhode Island last year, has been working regionally at theaters in New England and New York.
He prepared for his role as Mr. Dussel by reading the script, researching the historical period and doing character work.
Juggling the role of Belle in her school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the week before OSTC’s opening, Fortin maturely balances the demands of schoolwork, voice lessons and the intensive two-week rehearsal schedule of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” her first professional regional production. She plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in theater at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City this fall after graduating Exeter-West Greenwich High School.
“I think if you love to do something, you’ll do it well,” said Fortin, who acknowledges that her family and teachers have been a “huge support.”
Pierce’s first professional production was also compliments of OSTC last summer, when she appeared in “Legally Blonde.” The 2013 graduate of Rhode Island College holds a bachelor’s degree in musical theater and drama and was nominated twice to compete for an acting scholarship from the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival. Pierce also was one of the founding members of North Kingstown High School’s International Thespian Society.
“I dance, I take vocal lessons and I audition a lot…I’m constantly working on my craft … I love it,” said Pierce, who spent substantial time reading the play, researching the period and taking notes about Miep to ensure that her portrayal “came from an honest place.”
These young actors’ dedication to their characters has stayed true to Turner’s vision for the play: one of exuberance, honesty and the human spirit’s refusal to be squelched.
Unlike other wartime stories, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” in Turner’s opinion, is “at its heart, not about war but about life.”
For ticket information, call the Ocean State Theatre Company box office at 401-921-6800, or visit ostcri.org. Prices range from $34 to $49.