You know the story. A young girl and her family, along with several acquaintances, hide from the Nazis in an attic in Amsterdam during World War II. The young girl keeps a diary. Those hiding are betrayed near the end of the war, arrested and shipped off to various concentration camps. The young girl will die four days before her camp is liberated. So, if you know the story, why bother going to Playhouse on Park to see The Diary of Anne Frank? Well, because the production is seamless, the cast is outstanding, the direction is perceptive and deft…and, well, the evening is riveting.
Given the dimensions of the Playhouse’s theater, the venue is tailor-made to present this story of human beings forced to live in a confined space, fearful of making too much noise lest they be discovered. Scenic designer David Lewis has made good use of every available inch of space, which means that the audience lives with the family throughout the evening, an impression augmented by director Ezra Barnes’ decision to hold most of the cast on stage during intermission, their characters going about their constrained lives as the audience members are free to go where they please. The effect is subtle yet telling – you come back into the house to find your seat and your first thought is: “They’re still here.” And that’s the point.
For the curtain call, Barnes decided to present the cast as an ensemble, and I can’t argue with the decision (well, I can, but I won’t). However, there’s absolutely no doubt who anchors this production: it’s Isabelle Barbier, who plays Anne. With just a touch of well-placed make-up and her hair cropped, the actress bears a striking, almost haunting resemblance to the real Anne Frank, but that isn’t why you can’t take your eyes off her. Barbier manages, effortlessly (right!) to capture the essence of the Anne Frank we know from the Diary, which was used as the basis for the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and sensitively adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Barbier’s Anne is a girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, a perspicacious, verbose (those confined with her suggest she’s a bit too verbose) sometimes awkward gamine who can barely control the life that surges through her. The fact that the audience knows what awaits Anne does not, oddly enough, detract from the enjoyment of watching Barbier create an Anne Frank who, despite everything, embraces life.
Obviously, the Anne Frank character does not stand alone, and Barbier is surrounded by actors who, in their own right, give marvelous performances. Frank van Putten plays Anne’s father, Otto, and Joni Weisfeld her mother, Edith. Strong performances both. You can’t help but be moved by van Putten’s delivery of the father’s low-key soliloquy at the end of the show or by Weisfeld’s climbing onto a table to attack Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) for eating a piece of bread. Her delivery captures the tension and border-line desperation all the characters are dealing with.
Equally impressive are Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, clutching her fur coat as a symbol of all that has been lost, Ruthy Froch as Anne’s sister, Margot, and Alex Rafala as the Van Daan’s son, Peter, who supplies the love interest (fantasy?) for Anne. Rounding out this exquisitely professional cast are Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies, Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler and Jonathan Mesisca as Mr. Dussel. They all work together on stage under Barnes’ direction as if they have been together for years and, of greater importance, that they really are the characters they are playing, confined in a small space and under constant threat of exposure and eventual death.
I return to the idea that the audience knows what will happen to the characters they are watching, but that does not diminish the life-affirming two hours that the audience shares with them. The unique aspect of Anne’s diary and the play that has been adapted from it is that the people we see are not super-heroes and the battles they must fight are not epic but rather those we all, in one way or another (although often without such dire consequences) must fight.
“It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” — Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl…and that’s what this production is: “good at heart.”
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to www.playhouseonpark.org