by Michael Bowen
We think of her, of course, as a teenager. But she would have been 75 by now. Would have been, that is, if the Nazis hadn't shaved her head and left her, shivering and crawling with lice, to die of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Just weeks later, her extermination camp was liberated. Anne Frank nearly survived to realize her dream of living in a world where people are basically good. (Except, of course, for the ones who impaled infants on bayonets.)
If you're going to revive a familiar and tragic play like The Diary of Anne Frank, you had better do it right -- simply out of respect for the millions who died and didn't have a precocious diarist to memorialize them.
The Civic's production (through March 19) gets it right. Director Marianne McLaughlin, after all, has some experience in this line of work: She won a Best Actor award for another Holocaust drama, Spokane Theatrical Group's I Never Saw Another Butterfly, at the American Association of Community Theaters festival in Connecticut in June 2003. That same show was also judged to be the best community theater production in the nation that year -- and this Diary represents a comparable level of achievement.
As Anne, Jessi Little overdoes the chirpiness at first (nobody, even an irrepressible child, is that happy over the prospect of being cooped up). Later on, however, she makes us feel Anne's guilt in the speech of self-reproach over being in a warm bed when others are dying. (Kind of like being in a warm theater seat and watching a tragedy from a comfortable distance.) Little finds Anne's humanity, making her even more of a hero: She was just like us -- irritable, self-focused, dissatisfied with her life -- and yet she endured with dignity.
The cast contributes several highlights. As Anne's mother, Denise Sutton Utter is full of anger and despair, seeming to decline physically as the months creep by. Although the script affords Otto Frank little opportunity to be anything other than a saint, Michael Nelson finds effective ways to express anger and grief. Jean Hardie travels all of Mrs. Van Daan's arc from selfishness to touching generosity (learning the lesson that Anne already knew). And Robert L. Wamsley catches Mr. Van Daan's self-pity and (in the face of everyone else's misery) subsequent self-reproach. He's forever stealing a cigarette or a piece of bread.
As for the unsavory details that Otto Frank revised out of his daughter's diary, we learn that 13-year-old girls like the idea of sex and resent the idea of their mothers.
No surprise there. What's remarkable is the adherence to formality and etiquette among the eight inmates of the "secret annex": Even after being confined in an attic for a year and a half, they're still addressing one another as "Mrs. Van Daan" and "Mr. Dussel."
After unspeakable horror, Otto wanted to observe the niceties of polite society by expurgating his daughter's diary (which she addressed as "Kitty"). Considering who she was and what happened to her, that's almost quaint.
McLaughlin allows some long sequences of quiet stage business, and it seems tedious until you realize that that's the point: drawing us into the long hours of fearful waiting that the Franks and their four guests put up with. She includes enough well-observed detail onstage that when there's a sudden noise outside the annex, we jump and startle too.
Because the Franks' friend, Miep Gies (Dana Blasingame, in a fresh and generous portrayal) is their chief link to the outside world, it's important that her manner and appearance reflect the gathering clouds of anti-Semitism. Susan Berger and Jan Wanless outline the Nazi nightmare, with Miep's clothes declining from stylish to bedraggled. At one point, they even provide Otto Frank with baggy pinstriped pajamas that adumbrate the death-camp uniform in his future.
Nik Adams contributes a multi-level, lived-in set, with a painted clock tower and a leafless tree providing the only reminders that there's a world outside the attic in which they're stuck. Anne's black-and-white photos of family members and celebrities line the wall of the bedroom she has to share with a middle-aged dentist.
In a show in which sounds from outside the annex have to be realistic and frightening, Dan Moses Schreier offers a sound design that elicits startle reactions, just like the understandably jumpy characters onstage.
Unfortunately, when the final horror arrives, it's flat -- difficult to simulate the genuine horror of the unexpected knocking at the door, the thump of jackboots on the stairs, the splitting up of families forever. This particular staging doesn't summon the violence and panic that the Nazi officer and his collaborators should carry with them.
The betrayal and arrest of the Franks took place in August 1944; by the following spring, seven of the occupants of the secret annex -- all but Anne's father, Otto -- would be dead. Miep Gies gathered up the scattered pages of the diary; within a few years after the war, it had been translated worldwide. The Nazis tried starving Anne to death, but in the end, Kitty won.
"Never forget," the Shoah Foundation advises. A Diary like this one is a useful memory aid, even for the experiences we'd rather not remember.
Publication date: 03/03/05