Sunday, February 05, 2006

Diary of Anne Frank (Beck Center)

Mesmerizing ‘Diary of Anne Frank’ at Beck

Otto Frank (George Roth) stood downstage right with a pin spot isolating him. He was within the attic in which he, his family and four others hid from the Nazis during World War II. He turned to the audience and related how, after the Germans found them, the attic’s occupants were taken to various concentration camps. All but he died, some within days of the end of the war. He glanced down, saw something, picked it up, looked at it, and quietly said, “And this is all that is left.” Frank was speaking of a diary. A small red and white plaid book that was given to Anne for her thirteenth birthday on June 12, 1942. His eyes glistened with tears as the lights faded to black.

The audience sat, stunned. After a short pause the lights came up and the cast came on stage. The audience sat immobile, many crying, others fighting back tears. One person started to applaud, others followed, but this was not the applause of pleasure, it was applause of respect. This audience had just experienced the closest thing many will ever see of a perfect theatrical production. A production that was finely honed by director Sara May and impressively interpreted by a well-informed, well-molded and talented cast.

The tragic story of Anne Frank and her family has become one of the best known chapters in the history of the Holocaust. For over two years they lived their lives in an annex above Mr. Frank’s factory. They could move around only at night after the plant closed. They spent each day in complete silence lest a noise alert the workers below. It is the story of the simple events of daily living suddenly made remarkable and precious by the constant threat of discovery.

More than fifty years later, the diary has become one of the most widely read personal journals of all time. It has been translated into 67 different languages and has sold more than 31 million copies. It has been made into an award winning play and film.

In 1955, when the play, which was loosely based on the diary opened in New York, a critic said that “nothing momentously dramatic happens. It is a story of stealth, boredom, bickering, searching for comfort in other people, dreams, fears, hunger, anger, and joy." Audiences came to not only show tribute to Anne Frank, but to see a real slice of the Holocaust. Many thought the play did not, however, really tell the whole story. The family’s Jewish roots were not highlighted, the intense stress was not illustrated, the ending was sugary...leaving the message that Anne still thought people were good.

The new version, now on stage at Beck Center, is more muted and less sentimental. Working from Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett's script, Wendy Kesselman, who did the rewrite, sticks closer to the diary then the original interpretation. She added scenes, religious ceremonies and wrote a startling new ending. The play has also been shortened and the language is more lyric, less theatrical. But most of all, Kessleman makes the message emotionally poignant.

Beck’s production is perfectly paced by May. She has worked for not only the right tone, but her cast understands the story, how to build the emotional intensity and set the right tone for each scene. She has paid attention to every detail. To show her microscopic eye for detail, the Hebrew pronunciation used for the prayers was that of the Jews of Europe before the Holocaust, not that of present day pronunciation.

George Roth, who dedicated his performance to his mother who is a Holocaust survivor, textured his performance perfectly. He didn’t portray Otto Frank, he was Otto Frank. Young Heather Farr is impressive as Anne. She grows from awkward child to young adult before our very eyes. She is totally believable. Anne McEvoy underplays the role of Edith Frank, Anne’s mother, for full effect. The scene where she expresses to Miep, the gentile who feeds and provides news of the outside world to the annex members, her stress over the close quarters and lack of privacy is masterful.

Magdalyn Donnelly (Margot), Anne’s sister is totally believable. Peter Van Daan, who develops an emotional relationship with Anne, grows from shy boy to charming young man. He does so with charm and competence. The role of Mrs. Van Daan (Peter’s mother) is normally played as a nagging shrew. The role in the hands of talented Paula Duesing becomes a woman who is egocentric but also shows signs of love and caring. Brian Bartels (Mr. Van Daan) and Mark Cipra (Mr. Duessel, the dentist) also develop clear characterizations, as does Dawn Youngs as Miep Gies.

Richard Gould’s set, Jeff Lockshine’s lighting, Richard Ingraham’s sound design and Alison Garrigan’s costumes all enhance the production.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘THE DIARY OR ANNE FRANK,’ under the meticulous direction of Sara May, is a mesmerizing experience. It is not to be missed! If you only see one play this year...this should be it!