Diary of Anne Frank stars Elizabeth and Dorothy Hughes

by | Oct 2, 2015 | What’s Happening

Peninsula Community Theatre in Newport News, through Sunday, Oct. 18
Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm

No stranger to the stage, 13-yearold Elizabeth Hughes has appeared in professional and community theater, school, dance and summer camp performances throughout Tidewater since she was a toddler. In January 2011, a video of Elizabeth singing the national anthem for the Norfolk Admirals at Scope when her microphone died, went viral on youtube. The poise of the tiny eight-year-old, who kept on singing, and the support of the crowd that sang with her, moved viewers all over the world, and resulted in numerous television, radio and newspaper interviews and segments, as well as dozens of invitations to sing the anthem, including at a sold out NHL game in Tampa for a crowd of more than 20,000.

But her upcoming performance, playing the title role in Peninsula Community Theatre’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, is meaningful beyond anything Elizabeth has ever done. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is based on the diary that tells the story of Anne and seven other people who hid in Amsterdam in July 1942 in an attempt to escape the Nazis. They remained hidden, aided by friends of Anne’s father, Otto, until they were betrayed in August 1944 and deported to the death camps of Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen. Otto was the only survivor.

A Hebrew Academy alum, now an eighth grader at Norfolk Collegiate School, Elizabeth is the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, and her mother, Dorothy Hughes, a former HAT teacher and United Jewish Federation of Tidewater Holocaust Commission member, is performing with her, playing Anne’s mother, Edith Frank. Involved in Holocaust education and awareness since high school, Dorothy has shared her family’s story with Elizabeth from age of five or six, as Dorothy’s parents did with her.

Elizabeth’s passion for theater, combined with the opportunity to tell the story of Anne Frank, has resulted in a profoundly moving and memorable experience for both mother and daughter.

“When we saw the audition notice, we knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to play these parts—Elizabeth is 13—the exact age that Anne was when she went into hiding in 1942—and I am still young enough to play Edith Frank,” says Dorothy. “We performed in the Sound of Music together at Peninsula Community Theatre in 2014, and know what a wonderful organization it is. And while this is the fifth show we have done together, and even the second time we have played mother and daughter, we had never done anything that has had such a deep, personal connection for us.

“When I watched Elizabeth at the auditions, she simply embodied Anne’s spirit-the combination of an outgoing, vibrant young girl with a reflective, mature soul. I knew at that moment she was born to play Anne. When our wonderful director, Linda Marley Smith, called to tell us the news that we were both cast, she said she had been looking for actors who truly understood the characters and what made them tick. Based on my discussions with Elizabeth, this was the case—and of course, she is 13, going through many of the emotions and changes that 13-year old Anne was experiencing, especially in her relationship with her mother. We definitely have some art imitating life moments on stage together. And combine all of this with Elizabeth’s and Anne’s undeniable physical resemblance—well, I think Elizabeth’s performance is going to take the audience’s breath away.”

The cast and crew that have accompanied Dorothy and Elizabeth on this journey have approached the material with love, compassion and respect. The play is demanding in many ways, with most cast members on stage for most of the time. The four-level set places them in cramped quarters to replicate the sense of confinement experienced by those in hiding, and requires intricate “choreography” to ensure that the cast can move from one area to another without bumping into or blocking one another. And for many involved, it has also been an educational experience, as they have taken it upon themselves to research to inform and enrich their understanding of their characters and tragic events of the Holocaust.

With fewer and fewer survivors to tell their own stories, Dorothy believes that sharing Anne’s story is even more important than ever, especially given the rise in anti-Semitism taking place in the world today. “This is truly a labor of love for Elizabeth and me, a way to pay tribute to my father, a partisan fighter who passed away at the age of 91 on Yom HaShoah 2012, and my mother, too, who is 89, but too frail to make the trip from N.J. to see the show, as well as all of the victims, survivors, rescuers and liberators. I think it has become a labor of love for everyone in the show. I have never worked with a cast so emotionally invested in their performances. When we did our first rehearsal of the scene in which the Nazis break down the door to the hiding place, the emotions were so raw and intense we could hardly move. I looked over at Katy Feldl, who plays Mrs. Van Daan, and I think she was crying even harder than I was. Linda, the director, told us that she got choked up so badly that she could barely get out her final blocking directions to Elizabeth, something that had never happened to her before. And Elizabeth came over to me, overcome and inconsolable, crying softly that she missed her Grandpa so much and wished that he were alive to see this play.”

On Fridays and Sundays, there is a Q and A with the cast after the show. Tickets can be purchased at www.pctlive.org. Tickets are $18 for adults, $12 for seniors and students 22 and under, and $17 for military and their dependents.