A Moving Portrait of Controlled Desperation

By Geary Danihy

Anne Frank was just a girl.

Yes, she was a very precocious, erudite, young lady, but she was, in the end, just a girl. This is something we sometimes tend to forget, given the often hagiographic handling of her diary and her life. At the time she wrote her diary, she did not know she would become a symbol, she did not know that her diary would be the source of haggling and acrimony, she did not know she would become famous. She was just a girl growing up in a world turned upside down, a world turned brutal and deadly, a world that ultimately would not allow her to be…just a girl.

It is to director Gerald Freedman’s credit that the Anne Frank we see on the stage of the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is the girl – willful, precocious, self-centered and vulnerable. Yes, Molly Ephraim, who plays Anne, may be just a tad too old for the part, but she hides her age well. Get beyond that – and it’s easy to do -- and what we have is an entirely engaging portrait of the young lady who would record her dreams and desires in her diary, then meet her demise in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, dying of typhus days before the camp was liberated by Allied troops.
 
Ephraim is backed by an exceptionally strong cast, with each actor etching a portrait of a human being trying to live an ordinary life in extremely desperate circumstances. Felicity Jones, as Anne’s mother Edith, is especially moving as a woman who goes through the motions of living a “normal” life as she hears the whispers of doom in her ears.

If there is an overarching theme to the play, it is the nobility of normal people attempting to maintain their civility – and their humanity – in the face of circumstances that seem to compel them to become the very same barbarians who threaten them.

This tension is subtly developed by playwright Wendy Kesselman, who adapted the drama from the original by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. We have Mrs. Van Daan (Mimi Lieber), who desperately clings to the fur coat given to her by her father, and her husband, played by Steve Vinovich, whose desire for a “good meal” eventually leads him to steal a slice of communal bread, an action that draws Edith’s condemnatory ire. Then there is the dentist, Mr. Dussel (Lou Liberatore), who flees his Aryan girlfriend to find safe harbor with the families in the factory loft – his arrival an imposition that challenges everyone’s sense of what is right versus what is necessary for survival. And then there is Anne’s older sister, Margot (Lauren Culpepper), jealous of Anne’s burgeoning relationship with the Van Daan’s son, Peter (Ari Brand), who dreams of once again being able to dance, to whirl, to no longer be considered a pariah by a society through which she once moved so easily.

There is subtle, growing tension in the play, accentuated by scenic designer John Ezell’s set, which allows harsh light (compliments of lighting designer Travis McHale) to seep up from the factory below (a reminder that any one of the workers might, at any moment, turn in the families). The same harsh light is thrown against a scrim up-stage – a light that is, at one time, the headlights of Gestapo cars on the prowl and at another time the headlight of the train bearing the Frank family away to captivity, the jagged harshness accentuated by the sound designed by Rusty Wandall, a forceful mélange of sirens and the grinding mechanical screams of trains moving off into the night, heading east towards the concentration camps.

Those screams seem to end the play, but there is a coda, and it may be an ill-considered one. After the family has been betrayed and herded off – punctuated by the screech of metal on metal and flash of lights, Anne’s father, Otto (Mitch Greenberg), the only member of the loft “family” to survive, reappears on stage to retrieve Anne’s diary and relate what happened to all of the characters. It is a tying up of loose ends, but given the emotional impact of the scene that precedes his reappearance, one wonders whether allowing the train’s wail to echo off into silence might have been a more effective denouement.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through Saturday, Oct. 30. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

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