“The Diary of Anne Frank”
By Irene Backalenick
“The Diary of Anne Frank.” Though many of us have seen the play—or the film—or the musical—umpteen times, it still remains unique--and uniquely moving. Now at the Westport Country Playhouse, it brings to life the Holocaust era as played out by one Jewish family. The play, based on a true story culled from a teen-age girl’s diary, has gone on to considerable recognition. And Anne Frank herself has become a symbol of hope and strength in a horrific period of history.
To reiterate, for any one who has somehow missed this tale: It began after the Nazis invaded Holland. In 1942, Otto Frank, a factory owner in Amsterdam, hid his family and several other Jews in the factory’s “secret annex.” Eventually there would be eight occupants in the tight quarters. With the support of Miep Gies, a non-Jewish friend, they would survive two years, until some one betrayed them to the Nazis.
After the war, the family’s lone survivor, Otto Frank, returned to Amsterdam, where he found his daughter’s diary. Thus began the “Diary” saga, with its struggles and eventual success. After its publication, the diary would move on to the Broadway stage (the 1956 original by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the Wendy Kesselman adaptation in 1997). Beyond that were two Hollywood films, and 30 million copies of the book which were sold worldwide.
And now the Kesselman adaptation surfaces at the Playhouse, in a thoughtful, well-crafted production. In contrast to its predecessor, this Kesselman version cuts closer tothe truth, with emphasis on the Franks’ Jewishness and their sense of inevitability.
Director Gerald Freedman’s vision for the play is brooding, powerful, and enormously empathetic. And he manages to create a claustrophobic interior, a “hidden annex,” despite the breadth of the Playhouse stage. That problem is resolved by set designer John Ezell’s marvelously cluttered set. Separate tiny rooms for its eight occupants have been carved out of the clutter of daily living—and scenes move quickly from one tiny space to another (although, alas, the story does drag in the second act).
Indeed, there is a strong foreboding and gritty reality to the staging, costuming (Willa Kim), lighting (Travis McHale), sound effects (Rusty Wandall), and the performance itself. Eight people strive for normalcy, as they fear the inevitable knock at
the door and hear the transport trains rumbling to the East.
Freedman has in fact gathered an excellent cast, topped by the radiant Molly Ephraim as Anne. Ephraim brings a vibrant quality to the scene, as she interacts with her fellow tenants. She creates an Anne who is impulsive, outspoken, and always in command of the stage. At the same time, she gives depth to the character, ranging through Anne’s gamut of emotions. Supporting her are players who each create unique individuals, even as they work well in ensemble.
This “Diary” is an absorbing piece which proves, once again, to be a valuable history lesson. Don’t bring the kiddies, but teen-agers—and adults—will profit from it.
This review also appears in the Connecticut Post, National Jewish Post & Opinion, nytheaterscene.com, and jewish-theatre.com