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Friday, 29 May 2015

Review: Diary of Anne Frank: a hard-working production that fails to reach the heights history demands

The Diary ofAnne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Designed by Bretta Gerecke (set/costumes), Leigh Ann Vardy (lighting), Don Ellis (sound)

Sara Farb as Anne Frank.
Photo by David Hou
I know enough about the horrors of the Holocaust, been overwhelmed with sorrow when visiting the National Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and in my household we celebrate Hanukkah as well as Christmas. My husband is a Holocaust scholar and educator.  This is well-travelled, saddened ground for my family, and I had tissues at the ready for Jillian Kieley’s opening of The Diary of Anne Frank. But I was left wondering why I was not moved to tears until the play’s final minutes.

It might be because for the first half of the play I found myself more in sympathy with Mrs. Frank than Anne. Anne is truly a self-centered teen, incapable of reading the dread and anxiety that is weighing down her mother - impeccably conveyed from start to finish by Lucy Peacock – and this makes her unlikeable and nowhere near the sentimentalized heroine we are meant to idolize. By the second act – set two years later – Anne has matured and is a little more subdued, and there is tragedy in that we finally get a glimpse of the young woman who might have been.

Members of the company in The Diary of Anne Frank.
Photo by David Hou
The problem, with this play then, is perhaps its source material – a diary written by a thirteen-year-old girl. Despite the circumstances under which it is written the diary is the inner musings of a teenager, with no more drama than that which her internal voice creates. It is why some of the characters seem mere caricatures (Mr. Dussel), as she is unable to see past her own view of them and understand their complexities. However it is a miracle the diary survived the horror of World War II, it is a revelation about the day-to-day hardships of those in hiding, and the tone is one of irrepressible hope. Therein lies the tragedy, since the Franks, Van Daans and Mr. Dussel came within a hair of being liberated.

Nevertheless, Jillian Keiley’s production tries hard to make the most of theatrically dramatic moments that are fleeting: frightening nightmares of Hitler and storm troopers, a Hanukkah celebration cut short by a burglar, the way the day-to-day silent monotony is portrayed, and a puzzle-box set that cleverly conveys more space than most would guess they had (in fact the Franks did use the office spaces at night when the workers went home – some surmise this is how they got caught). The entire cast reads excerpts from the diary (not just Anne) as activity goes on behind them, keeping the pace ticking along. In the final moments of the play the set is transformed into the cattle-cars that transport the terrified families to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. – one of two real gut-punches in the production, neither provided by the text of the play.





L-R: Maeve Beaty as Miep Gies, Sara Farb as Anne Frank, and
Shannon Taylor as Margot Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank.
Photo by David Hou
The company works just as relentlessly. Sara Farb delightfully recreates Anne’s spirit in both her flippant impertinence and later maturity, while Shannon Taylor gives a portrayal of her sister Margot that mirrors Ms. Peacock’s Mrs. Frank in haunted suffering. Yanna McIntosh gives Mrs. Van Daan a touch of the restrained histrionic without being foolish, while Kevin Bundy somehow gets the audience to empathize with Mr. van Daan, the weakest-willed of the men. Both Andre Morin and Christopher Morris subtly show how isolated Peter and Mr. Dussel feel from the others, while Maeve Beaty provides a ray of sunshine to both the Annex residents and the audience, while still communicating the stress of her own situation as provider for eight fugitives.

Finally, Joseph Ziegler gives Otto Frank the patience of Job, and also has the privilege of providing the production’s only knock-out punch – at play’s end, after revealing all their fates, Mr. Ziegler comes upstage and presents a copy of A Diary of a Young Girl to someone in the front row. A spot-lit, anonymous hand reaches up to receive this gift before all fades to black. It is this image that seared itself into my heart and mind, the ultimate metaphor for the play and Anne’s own wish – to live on, even after her death.

A few more such gut-punches would have lifted this hard-working production to greater heights. In the end, The Diary of Anne Frank is an unforgettable story told by a wonderful cast and director, but is somehow diminished by the play’s text.  It continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 10th

L-R: Josephy Ziegler as Mr. Frank, Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Frank,
Shannon Taylor as Margot Frank and Sara Farb as Anne Frank
in The Diary of Anne Frank. Photo by David Hou

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