Unexpected personal connection as Gallo Rep brings Anne Frank story to life

The cast of the Gallo Center Repertory Company production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” includes, from left Anna Conley (in the title role), David Hambley and Charlene West.
The cast of the Gallo Center Repertory Company production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” includes, from left Anna Conley (in the title role), David Hambley and Charlene West. Gallo Center Repertory Company

In a climate of hatred and persecution, the story of one girl helped to bring the world together.

Now the new Gallo Center Repertory Company will retell her story in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a production based on the world’s most well-known diarist and victim of the Holocaust. The production will have four public showings this weekend starting Friday, and also stage half a dozen abridged school performances for the Gallo Center for the Arts.

Gallo Center Rep Artistic Director Jim Johnson said he selected the play, based on the best-selling “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, because of its timeless and timely themes.

“It speaks to our current world situation, the turmoil, the prejudice, the warfare going on today,” Johnson said. “Her message resonates through the ages.”

At age 13, Anne Frank went into hiding with her family after the Nazis occupied Amsterdam during World War II. They lived for two years, along with other Jews also in hiding, in a small, secret upstairs annex. During that time she kept a diary about her experience and view of the world. Her family was discovered in 1944 and sent to the concentration camps where they all died, except for her father, Otto Frank.

Her diary was recovered by a family friend and given to him after the war was over, and subsequently published in 1947. It has since sold more than 30 million copies, been translated into 67 languages and has become required reading in many schools. Yet it is her spirit of optimism, despite the harrowing circumstances, that has helped her story endure and inspire.

The Gallo Center Rep show will retell her time hiding in the secret annex. The cast of 10 local actors filling out the cast includes 11-year-old Hickman Charter School sixth-grader Anna Conley as Anne. Her family will be played by David Hambley as Mr. Frank, Charlene West as Mrs. Frank and Emily Wooten as her sister Margot. Merced Shakespearefest founder and artistic director Heike Hambley will direct the show.

“I think (Anna Conley) is going to win the hearts of everyone in the show,” Johnson said of the young star. “She is such an accomplished actress for only being (11 years old).”

The Modesto production also has a personal connection to the Frank family. One of Anne’s childhood classmates, Ursula Lowenbach Foster, moved to Modesto in 1951 after the war. Foster’s family was also Jewish and went into hiding during the Nazi occupation. She is mentioned by name in the diary as a rival for Anne’s boyfriend.

Foster died in 2004, but her son continues to tell her story and chronicle the lives of Holocaust survivors through his photographic work. Clifford Lester, who grew up in Modesto and now teaches at Cypress College in Southern California, will give a talk during a special staging of the play sponsored by Congregation Beth Shalom on Sunday, Nov. 6. His work will also be on display throughout the show’s run.

The public is also invited to attend a special dinner reception at Galletto Ristorante with Lester after the Nov. 6 show. Tickets for the after-show event are $110.

“We’re thrilled beyond belief that the Gallo Center chose this subject,” said Doug Highiet, Congregation Beth Shalom board of directors president. “This is a message for everyone. Unfortunately it was the Jews’ turn to suffer in this story. But we want to make sure it’s never anyone else’s turn.”

Johnson said the crew has worked with the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom to help ensure the production’s authenticity. Each presentation will also include a pre-show talk an hour before curtain by Modesto-based theater historian Hillari DeSchane. She will discuss the play’s background and take questions from the audience.

This will be the fledgling company’s second full-scale production. The first was a partnership with Modesto’s Sankofa Theatre Company on the capital death row play “The Exonerated” in July. Johnson said the inaugural season was selected with the community in mind. The remaining season will include the Christmas-themed show “Too Many Tamales” in December and anti-gang play “Blood of an Angel” in April.

“I hope that young people, and everyone in the audience, is moved by the experience of seeing (Anne Frank’s story),” Johnson said. “I hope it moves them to think about people less fortunate and what they can do to make this a better world.”

Marijke Rowland: 209-578-2284, @marijkerowland

The Diary of Anne Frank

When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Gallo Center for the Arts, Foster Theater, 1000 I St., Modesto

Tickets: $12-$25

Call: 209-338-2100

ONLINE: www.galloarts.org