It’s been an extraordinary year for Valerie Rose Lohman. This 16-year-old actress is tackling her second in a pair of challenging roles in which she plays young teenage girls in fact-based plays that explore heart-wrenching themes related to the ravages of anti-Semitism.
First, the prolific Lohman played Mary Phagan, the girl who was savagely murdered in 1913 Atlanta — an event that instigated a mob hate campaign against the falsely accused Jewish factory manager, Leo Frank. This was in 3-D Theatricals’ May production in Fullerton of Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winning musical Parade.
Now Lohman has taken the leading role as the courageous and inspirational title character in the classic drama, The Diary of Anne Frank. Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett follows the struggles of members of a Jewish family hiding from Nazi soldiers in an Amsterdam attic, and is drawn from the actual diary kept by Frank. The Wasatch Theatre Ventures production opens Saturday at NoHo Arts Center.
Before and After Dark
“I was the kid in kindergarten who would tell jokes a lot, and acting was always my first passion,” Lohman says. “I started doing plays when I was younger, but really started to pursue it more the past five years or so. Straight plays are my real love.” Having graduated early from the Orange County High School for the Arts, following completion of online courses, Lohman is pursuing college studies while auditioning for stage roles, with ambitions for film work as well.
She has apppeared in The Philadelphia Story at Westminster Community Theatre and The Crucible at Costa Mesa Playhouse. She points to another dramatic role under her belt — albeit in the thriller genre vs. the historical tragedy of Parade and Anne Frank — precocious young Gloria in Westminster Community Theatre’s Wait Until Dark.
Yet most of her roles to date have been in musicals: “Opportunities are limited in [her home town of] Corona, but there are many shows in the Inland Empire and in Orange County. I go in for auditions when they are casting for performers my age.” She has yet to work outside of California, but she says that she looks forward to doing so. Last summer she played her first musical lead, Dorothy, in The Wizard of Oz at the Lewis Family Playhouse in Rancho Cucamonga. It was one of her favorite experiences. She found it thrilling to have the challenge of the central role, not to mention carrying a dog throughout the show.
In February, she appeared in Cinderella with BellaJohn Theatricals in Riverside. In March, she played Joanie Cunningham in Happy Days The Musical at Tibbies Center Stage in Fontana. She says she was excited to appear in a workshop of an ambitious new musical called Tsarina, at the Grove Theatre in Upland in 2011, playing Tatiana Romanov.
The Journey to Frank
Lohman won the role of Anne Frank through open auditions. It’s her first experience in 99-seat theater. She observes: “I’m a huge fan of the Anne Frank story. I love the  Millie Perkins film version. This is a part I’ve wanted to play for a very long time. When I heard about it, I had to go in for it.”
She relishes the challenges of this assignment. “Realizing how much energy I had as a 13-year-old and how much [Anne] had, it takes a lot out of you, but it’s so gratifying to get to do it. You have to make sure you’ve eaten beforehand, and it’s very emotionally draining, because you do the whole show knowing what happened to her.” Anne was ultimately imprisoned in a concentration camp, where she died.
Lohman views this as similar to the darkness of the material in Parade, in which her character initially proceeds through the story unaware of impending tragedy. “As an actor, it’s hard to cope with this…very sad.” she remarks. Preparing for Anne Frank, she visited a Holocaust museum, “and we talked with some survivors who were Anne’s age during the Holocaust. This made what we already knew that much more real — and that much more heartbreaking. I think the play is so beautiful.”
She has been very pleased working with director Mark Belnick, crediting his insight and passion about the piece. She finds it “lovely to work with him because he’s always striving for something better. He keeps pushing me as an actor, and he always gives me notes that are so helpful.”
As for the cast, “some have members of their families who were lost in the Holocaust or know people who were involved. Having that is very interesting, because it really adds. These actors give a lot in scenes, which is really helpful.” Lohman came to the role with a strong familiarity about the true story and the various dramatic works drawn from it, including a number of television versions.
Kesselman, a veteran playwright and screenwriter, who earned a Writers Guild of America award for her screen adaptation of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, directed by Peter Yates, speaks by phone from her home in Massachusetts. She was commissioned by producers of the 1997 Broadway revival to write a then-new adaptation of the original 1955 Diary of Anne Frank script This is the version being staged by Wasatch.
Kesselman says her extensive body of work also encompasses children’s books and music. She adapted her play My Sister in This House (which also was adapted into a 1994 film called Sister My Sister), for a 2010 Deaf West Theatre production of the same name. She is pleased to have this Anne Frank production playing in the North Hollywood arts district, just a few steps away from Deaf West, where she worked with the director and company in 2010. But she won’t be in California to attend the Anne Frank production.
Sister is a story of murder and intrigue set in 1933 France. Regarding the film version, Kesselman remarks, “I did the screenplay with certain reservations. It differs a lot from the play. The Deaf West adaptation is a whole other thing. The original play is still done a lot. Deaf West decided they wanted to do it and I rewrote the whole play for two deaf actresses.”
She notes that there are four women in the original play, and that Deaf West had two “extraordinary” deaf actresses, the two maids. Kesselman rewrote it so they could be deaf, believing that this “fit perfectly” with the play. She adds that she’s working hard on finding another production of this adaptation, but that it’s hard because theaters don’t particularly want to work with deaf actresses.
Regarding Anne Frank, Kesselman says the original 1955 script still gets produced more frequently. But LA’s West Coast Ensemble staged Kesselman’s version in 2001, as did Rubicon Theatre in Ventura in 2007. LA Theatre Works recorded it in 1998 for the group’s radio series. Kesselman’s wide-ranging works include additional plays with Holocaust themes. She says that I Love You, I Love You Not is a two-character piece about a young girl and her grandmother, who is a survivor of the Holocaust, and there is an additional work called The Last Bridge.
Lohman feels that Kesselman’s adaptation of Anne Frank is a substantial improvement over the original Goodrich-Hackett dramatization: “The original was very long. This one is less wordy, has a lot more about Anne’s feelings and her growing up. It’s great to play for an actress; there’s a lot more meat and realism here. Anne comes across not as an icon, but a real girl.” She considers this version “a really beautiful piece of theater. I love how much Anne changes in the show, starting out as a loud kid, but growing up a lot. She doesn’t become sophisticated, per se, but becomes a young woman.” The actress adds that per her research, Anne’s father didn’t realize how brilliant she was, and that she hid this from people.
Kesselman likewise expresses satisfaction and pride about her adaptation. She thought the Broadway cast (including Natalie Portman, Linda Lavin, George Hearn, and Austin Pendleton, under James Lapine’s direction) was “wonderful.”
She was at first approached to revise just the play’s “bookends.” She explains this: “The original was very much a play of its time. Because we didn’t want to hear about the concentration camps at that point, there were ‘bookends’ where Miep [Otto Frank’s employee who preserved Anne’s diary] brings in the diary, and then she sits and reads it, and then they talk at the end. They wanted to alter that device, but what I wanted to do was rewrite the whole thing. To start from scratch was not allowed. It was a very complex situation with the rights to the original diary. The associated contract was like a book, but ultimately I was able to re-do about 70-80% of it.”
She says that much of the structure remains the same, but the text includes more material from the diary. “The whole thing is very different,” she asserts. “For example, there’s a line that Mr. Frank says — that it might be hard to believe that Anne was happy in the concentration camp. That had to go, needless to say, and many other things. A lot of it had to do with telling the truth of what happened. There’s a really important thing in the play. Anne Frank is particularly known for a sentence in the diary: ‘I still believe people are really good at heart.’ That’s said in the original play, not once but twice. And in the film, by [director] George Stevens [working from a Goodrich/Hackett screenplay], it’s a line that is completely taken out of context, because the diary entry is in fact very tragic.”
Kesselman says that this line appears chronologically in the diary far ahead of the time she was in Auschwitz, but the original play had placed it a later context. In Kesselman’s version, right after Anne delivers this line, the Nazis break in on the children and they scream at gunpoint. “It should be terrifying,” she maintains.
She was deeply concerned with respecting historical accuracy and retaining faithfulness to the intent and spirit of the diary. “I did a huge amount of research, and being in Amsterdam [where the Anne Frank house is preserved as a museum] was very important.” She recommends an article and lecture on the subject by scholar Alvin H. Rosenfeld.
Lohman believes that Frank was a genius, and an extraordinary human being: “You would think this 13-year-old girl could have complained about her circumstances the whole time. The fact that she was able to find hope and beauty in her situation and beauty in people is extremely inspiring. I’ve tried to take that away into my own life. You see how much she had to go through. Today there is so much racism and hatred. I’d like to think this play is a step toward a brighter future.”
The Diary of Anne Frank, NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Opens Saturday. Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Through August 24. (Also August 4 at 7 pm.) Tickets: $25. www.plays411.com. 323-960-7788.
**All The Diary of Anne Frank production photos by Ed Krieger.