Inside the annex
The Paper Mills production of Anne Frank despite missteps gives new life to the iconic diarist
All productions of The Diary of Anne Frank ask the same thing of us that we let the ordeal of one precocious 13-year-old stand in for the uncountable Nazi atrocities, for the loss of a generation of European-Jewish children, and for the suffering and death of millions of victims whose voices will never be heard.
It is an unbearable and impossible burden for one teenager to carry, even one so gifted and charming as Anne, who speaks to us from the pages of her diary in the Paper Mill Playhouses staging of the famous play.
Shana Dowdeswell, who plays Anne, captures both her exuberance and her irritating hyperactivity. In the opening scene set in 1942, the Frank and van Daan families climb the stairs and enter what Anne refers to as the secret annex, a space above Otto Franks (Peter Kybart) old office in Amsterdam, where five adults and three children will hide for more than two years, hoping to wait out the war. Anne keeps up an enthusiastic monologue: While everyone rips off their yellow stars, she never stops moving, perching first on a chair and then bouncing up to explore her new home. It is easy to see how wearisome it might be to spend time with Anne in cramped quarters over a long period and to sympathize with everyone forced to endure each others company under such circumstances.
If only the set effectively conveyed the narrow, claustrophobic space familiar from Annes own account and from photographs of the actual hiding place. The almost expansive two-level design allows Anne and Peter van Daan (Michael Stahl-David), an awkward, gangly teenager and Annes romantic interest, to escape to the attic for private conversations while the adults interact below them. This adds movement but sacrifices the feeling of oppressive confinement that would have emphasized what they have lost. An incongruous row of red tulips at the front of the stage is presumably a reminder of the world outside but is distracting and irrelevant.
Inside the annex, as the first year passes, there is both drama and deprivation. Mrs. van Daan (Nancy Robinette) must give up her beloved fur coat, grown increasingly seedy from constant wear, to buy food for the household. Though shabby and useless to her in the present circumstances, the coat is a reminder of better times, and there is real pathos in her pain as her husband (David Wohl) wrenches it out of her arms to sell for food.
He, too, is the worse for wear. His stocky frame has shrunk, his pants are too big for him, and when he is discovered pilfering food from the common holdings, he is more pitiable than villainous.
This is a professional ensemble who know how to make each bit of stage business count. At no time does the action lag and so, although we know how this all will end, we are fascinated, caught up in the small dramas of everyday life taking place in such an ordinary and grotesque setting.
The production, with direction by Carolyn Cantor, also features Dana Powers Acheson as Margot Frank, Isabel Keating as Edith Frank, Michael Rupert as Mr. Dussel, Christa Scott-Reed as Miep Gies, and Jeff Talbott as Mr. Kraler.
Much has been written about the differences between the two best-known dramatic versions of the diaries. The first, which opened on Broadway in 1955 and won the Pulitzer Prize, was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Critics have increasingly complained that this play, written less than a decade after the war when the magnitude of the Holocaust had not fully been absorbed into the national consciousness, emphasized Annes universality to the detriment of her Jewishness. We did not want to set them apart from the people watching them for the majority of our audience is not Jewish, said the playwrights at the time.
The Paper Mill, however, has chosen to stage the 1997 adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, which also had a successful run on Broadway. Otto Frank, the only one of the annexs inhabitants to survive the war, edited the diaries before submitting them for publication in 1947. He eliminated sections that he thought reflected poorly on Anne, that revealed too much about her conflicts with her mother, for instance, or showed her speaking critically if amusingly of her fellow occupants in the annex. After Franks death in 1980, Kesselman had access to these unpublished portions of the diaries, in addition to several newly published definitive texts.
The new material, however, makes Anne no less iconic and no more real than previous depictions. Kesselman includes a scene in which the spotlight falls on Anne writing in her diary in her bedroom cubicle. Anne speaks aloud and, alluding to her own developing sexualilty, mentions menstruation, her breasts, nudity her own and others. Annes developing maturity is already painfully evident; these references add nothing to the characterization.
Whether the fault of the production or the adaptation, the ending is strangely anticlimactic. Surely by now, everyone in the audience knows how this play ends but when the Nazi soldiers burst through the door, they seem smaller than we imagined. They scurry around the annex creating more mess than menace while the inhabitants cower. Anne has time to deliver her famous line, I still believe, in spite of everything, people are really good at heart. A more fitting declaration, however, is one she utters earlier: I want to go on living even after my death. And so she has.
See the show
The Diary of Anne Frank will run through Feb. 26 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, with evening performances Wednesday through Sunday, matinees Thursday through Sunday. Tickets range in price from $16 to $68 and can be purchased by calling 973-376-4343 or on-line.
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