October 25, 2016
Those who are familiar with the play The Diary of Anne Frank are most likely to know the Pulitzer award-winning 1955 version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was based on the diary published in 1953. In 1997, Wendy Kesselman created an adaptation that was drawn from the earlier play, but also incorporated material that had been excised from the original book in order to make its appeal less Jewish and therefore more universal. Confirming the characters’ Jewishness as the reason for their hiding serves to accentuate the fear and desperation they must have felt.
That is the version that is now on
stage at the Sheldon Vexler Theatre,
expertly directed by Eva Laporte. Set
in Amsterdam in 1943-44, the story
deals with the German-born Frank
family – parents and two daughters –
who had escaped to the Netherlands
from the Nazis. Now there is a Dutch
purge, which they confront by hiding
in an apartment above Otto Frank’s
spice company office. They are joined
by the Van Daan family of three and
a couple of months later, a quirky dentist.
Instead of opening with Otto Frank's return to the loft after the war, where he finds the scattered pages of Anne's diary, the play begins with the two families wearing their yellow stars, carrying their meager belongings and climbing the stairs to what would be their home for just over two years.
Ken Frazier's thoughtfully-detailed multi-level set effectively evokes the attic hideaway, while his lighting design immeasurably adds and enhances both atmosphere and action.
Young Jessica Salazar is a completely credible Anne, the clever, outgoing 13-year-old who loves to write and chronicles all that she experiences, sees and feels in a checkered autograph book that she uses as a diary. Her words are expressed as spotlit monologues and voice-overs, including Ms. Kesselman's new revelations such as Anne's unaccountable dislike of her mother or her confusing, pubescent sexuality.
Jim Mammarella is perfectly cast as Otto Frank, the loving, good-natured peacekeeper and decision maker who does his best to help everyone deal with the emotional and physical consequences of their situation.
Theresa Bishop's Edith Frank is warm and sympathetically drawn, while Andrea Tuszynski makes a convincing Margot, Anne's quiet, rather frail older sister.
Byrd Bonner brings beyond-the-script dimension to Mr. Van Daan, a decent man who smokes (filtered?) cigarettes like a chimney and is given to wide mood swings, primarily – and understandably – because of unremitting stress. Lisa Fritschle as his wife effectively conveys the frustration and misery of a privileged woman whose life has careened out of control.
Mr. Dussel, the dentist, is endearingly befuddled as portrayed by Lynn Utley. Isaac Ouellette makes an appropriately introverted 16-year-old Peter Van Daan, whose tentative little romance with Anne is especially bittersweet, given the circumstances.
Bethany Ratliff takes the small but pivotal role of Miep Gies, who works downstairs and brings food, supplies, books and such to those in the cramped loft. In real life, it was she who saved Anne's diaries (there were several) and kept them until Otto returned to Amsterdam.
Through radio broadcasts and messages brought by Miep and her associate Mr. Kraler (Steve Zinkgraf), the upstairs residents receive limited information about the war's progress but are aware of where their Jewish neighbors have been taken on those dreadful trains.
While the plot is essentially somber, there are entertaining, even funny moments. However, sounds and noises such as air raid sirens, marching troops and a frighteningly loud thump downstairs (it was a thief) during a Hanukkah service are constant reminders of their horrifying reality.
After they are taken away by the Nazis, the stage goes black for long moments before it is slowly lightened to reveal a grieving Otto Frank entering the loft. Somehow, he survived Auschwitz and is the sole survivor of the group that had hidden so long. He finds the diary and begins a poignant monologue detailing what happened to each one.
Moving that scene from prologue to conclusion makes a compelling finale to an especially provocative piece of theater.
Diary of Anne Frank runs through November 13 in the Sheldon Vexler Theatre at the Jewish Community Center. Call 302-6835.
Sheldon Vexler Theater: The Diary of Anne Frank
Life, and fear, in the attic
Jessica Salazar, as Anne Frank, with Jim Mammarella as Otto Frank (above) and with Theresa Bishop as Edith Frank.
Photos by Allison Cornwell