Living in the Face of Hatred and Evil

By David A. Rosenberg

It’s time to move on. No, not from the horrors of the Holocaust, but from “The Diary of Anne Frank” as many know it. The dramatization of the famous book, now in revival at Westport Playhouse, though still powerful, has become part of a cottage industry. We’re familiar with the basic events; what is less known is the thwarted promise of an incipient writer, not an accidental chronicler but a brilliant, keen-eared craftswoman who does more than relate the domestic quarrels of eight people barely getting along in a claustrophobic attic.

The diary, left behind when Nazis arrested Anne, her father, mother and sister, plus fellow fugitives Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, their son Peter and their unexpected boarder, Mr. Dussel, has undergone numerous tellings: a 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a 1997 revision, a film, several exegeses, even a musical, by gosh, called “Yours, Anne.” Controversy dogged the adaptations, too complicated to go into but involving authors Lillian Hellman and Meyer Levin (whose wish to dramatize the diary was the subject of “Compulsion,” seen at Yale Rep last season).

It’s Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 revision we’re dealing with at Westport. She made several vital changes to the 1955 version that was written by Hollywood screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Kesselman frames the play with the chilling arrival of the Franks at their hiding place, ending with a graphic summary of what happened to everyone after their arrest. The Goodrich-Hackett version begins after the war, with Otto Frank’s finding his daughter’s diary, and ends with Anne’s voice, saying, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Now, that quotation is almost surreptitiously dropped in as Nazi officers begin to arrest the attic’s refugees. The emphasis here is on evil, not good, and the politics are stronger. For instance, Anne’s mother says (as she didn’t in the 1955 version), “There’s no hope to be had. I know that. I knew it the night Hitler came to power. . . . And now in London, what is the Dutch Queen doing? What are they all doing? They’re not even mentioning the word Jew. The trains are still leaving. Why don’t they bomb the tracks?” 

The Jewishness of Anne’s thoughts are juiced up – Palestine as a refuge, a Hanukkah song in Hebrew, not, as in the 1955 version, in English. Yet the effect, paradoxically, distances us even further from the diary instead of bringing us closer to what is as much a literary achievement as a remembrance of terrors past.

What does close the gap, thankfully, is the heightened emphasis on Anne’s growing sexuality and a particularly insightful bit about her relationship with a one-time school friend, leading to her intensified flirtation with Peter Van Daan. Towards the end, the stage is divided between youngsters and adults, all eating strawberries as if natural order were finally offering a ray of hope in a world nearly destroyed by vicious humans. It’s a deceptively bucolic moment, a superbly effective and affecting scene so cruelly interrupted by the play’s terrifying climax.

Under Gerald Freedman’s solemn, grave, sometimes stylized direction, Molly Ephraim embodies Anne’s “quicksilver” personality, expertly tracing her maturing into a young girl who can be both tender and tart. The rest of the cast – Ari Brand, Lauren Culpepper, Mitch Greenberg, Felicity Jones, Lou Liberatore, Mimi Lieber, Allen McCullough, Steve Vinovich and Monica West – succeed by playing their characters as real people, not symbols. Indeed, their unadorned acceptance of Anne’s Hanukkah gifts is the evening’s most moving scene, trumping Otto Frank’s final breakdown which sentimentalizes what should be an accusatory moment.

Technical credits are top-notch. John Ezell’s cramped set, Willa Kim’s threadworn costumes, Rusty Wandall’s exciting sound design and, especially, Travis McHale’s lighting which travels from subtle to frightening, all contribute to an evening that is both a testament to evil and a reminder that hatred lurks around every corner.

This review appeared in The Hour, Oct. 7

 

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