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FARMINGTON – San Juan College theater instructor Mollie Mook-Fiddler is no stranger to intense, weighty, emotionally draining material, having directed the college’s production of “The Laramie Project” in March 2014, a dramatization of the aftermath to the notorious 1998 murder of a gay University of Wyoming student.

Even so, she said the college’s upcoming production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” has been an experience that has transcended the usual live theater preparations — for her, as well as her cast and crew. The play chronicles the lives of the members of a Jewish family who spend two years hidden in the upper rooms of a building to avoid detection by the Nazis during their occupation of The Netherlands.

“I think everyone’s been emotionally impacted by the material,” she said last week as rehearsals continued for the production, which opens a two-week run Thursday, March 3 on the SJC campus. “They’re playing people who actually lived and died, not characters in somebody’s head. And they’ve gone digging into their particular history in an effort to make them full characters … I think it’s been a good process for them. It’s been hard, but I think it’s been beneficial.”

Mook-Fiddler said she’s always found herself drawn to such meaningful material. Even last year, when she led and directed a production of the Broadway musical “The Fantasticks” at the college, she cited the play’s real-life lessons and how its strips away many of the illusions surrounding love.

Mook-Fiddler said “The Diary of Anne Frank” presents an even more important message. Though it is set during World War II, she believes the script offers a connection to contemporary events taking place all around the world.

At the same time, she said, its main character is remarkably easy to relate to.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Anne Frank since I was a little girl,” she said, explaining that she read the book in her early teen years and was drawn to Frank because she was an ordinary teenager placed in extraordinary circumstances. “It was a captivating story to me as a child and a great example of grace under pressure.”

While the play has been around since 1955 and is an adaptation of Frank’s actual diary, published in 1947 under the title “The Diary of a Young Girl”, Mook-Fiddler said this is the first time she’s been involved in a production of it, so the material is fresh to her, just as it is to most of those taking part in the production.

Mook-Fiddler cast the play before the holiday break and charged the members of her cast with doing extensive research not just into the characters they would be playing, but what conditions were like in The Netherlands during that era. She chose to cast three members of one real-life family — Alice Irvin, Leigh Irvin and Joel Irvin – in the roles of Anne Frank and her parents. The rest of the cast consists of Madison Ballard, Rebecca Krebbs, Kevin Rothlisberger, Kevin Tschetter, Charles Pike, Brynna Matthews, Nick Michael, Ron Kronig, Mike McDonald and Randall Thompson.

“Everybody was given several different things to read,” Mook-Fiddler said. “They also watched several documentaries and read supplemental biographies. The whole cast did a ton of research on the show. We wanted to make sure we got it right.”

The director said the material they were exposed to was eye opening for her actors, many of whom had little or no idea what the lives of those caught up in the horrors of the Nazi occupation were like.

“That’s been one of the most rewarding parts of it,” she said of watching her actors develop an appreciation for the blanket of fear that descended not just on European Jews of that era, but also gay people or anyone else deemed by the Nazi hierarchy to be “different” or “undesirable.”

“To identify with them in such a way in the form of a role has really brought this home for them,” Mook-Fiddler said. “You realize they’re just like us. They were ordinary humans who had jobs and homes and families, but they were living in these intense circumstances. I hope this will always stay with them.”

Other students not directly involved in the production have benefited as well, she said. For instance, students in the history department have helped create posters for the show.

“We’re finding a lot of good academic tie-ins with this show,” Mook-Fiddler said. “It’s intense. It’s a sad subject.”

To counter that, the director said it’s been necessary for her to find and emphasize moments of humor during the rehearsals to lighten the mood.

“I’ve had actors break down,” she said. “So, sometimes, I have to tell them, ‘Remember, it’s just a play. You don’t want to get too emotionally tied in too soon.’”

Mook-Fiddler said the atmosphere during rehearsals for “The Laramie Project” was similar, but she believes those kinds of experiences are invaluable for actors and the audience alike.

“That’s the value of theater,” she said. “It asks, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ ”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: The San Juan College Theatre production of “The Diary of Anne Frank”

When: 7 p.m. March 3-5 and March 11-12, and 2:30 p.m. March 13

Where: The Little Theatre on the SJC campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington

Tickets: $10 for adults, and $8 for students and seniors at the SJC box office or online at sanjuancollege.edu/silhouette

For more information: Call 505-566-3430

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