Review of The Diary of Anne Frank, Playhouse on Park
The Diary of Anne Frank possesses intrinsic drama: a Jewish family—father, mother, two daughters—together with the family of the father’s colleague, and, later, the dentist of an acquaintance, hiding for their lives during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They have no illusions about the direness of the situation, but at the same time they maintain a hope for eventual restitution that, even though we know the outcome, we can almost share in with them.
The production at Playhouse on Park uses the Wendy Kesselman adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett derived from Anne Frank’s world famous diary. Directed by Ezra Barnes with costumes by Kate Bunce and scenic design by David Lewis, the show has appealing intimacy and quiet power.
The context we know, but if we don’t, the boisterous song in German that opens the show, about hunting and killing Jews, tells us all we need to know. Occasionally we hear Hitler on the radio, or references to the sequence of events: Jews forced to wear the gold star of David, being banned from all public activities, being forced into labor camps and losing all status except as expendable slaves of a system that intends the annihilation of a subjected people. People who, until Hitler came to power, were citizens enjoying all the privileges of a free state.
For all the drama and horror of the historical circumstances, the story Anne (Isabelle Barbier) sets down in her journals is an emblematic domestic drama. How do people get along in straightened circumstances? How does a young girl become a young woman, with only one boy around as possible object of romantic longing? How do parents make the best of bad things for their children? How do ordinary people live daily with extraordinary hardship? The little collective on stage before us are in the unique position of refugees who have not fled the land of persecution. Unable to emigrate, they elect to live in the cracks, as it were, in hopes that the Nazis will be defeated and Holland liberated in a short time. They are prisoners of hate and prisoners of hope.
The show grabs and holds the attention as though we are voyeurs looking on at how survival works. It’s remarkable the degree to which movement and interaction in the cramped space feels completely natural and believable. During the intermission, the cast remains on stage, in character, going about their personal activities in the annex in which the Franks, the Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel hid successfully for over two years.
Key to what makes this uneasy unit unique is the presence of Anne. We get the impression that she’s long been a kind of heroine waiting for her story to begin. She’s precocious, imaginative, the kind of motor-mouth that often leaves her more reticent father, mother and sister looking on in stricken silence. Anne always has something to say. Forced to be more circumspect in the presence of outsiders, she takes to her diary as a mission to unburden herself and to record life as she sees it. At one point, she insists she can’t imagine anyone reading her words; later, after an announcement on the radio suggests how important personal accounts will be after the war—when so many silenced people will need to be voiced—she understands that she is documenting the drama of survival, a document that may outlast her and her family and friends.
Isabelle Babier plays Anne forthrightly and winningly, with many a direct appeal to the audience that melts any misgivings about her character. She’s a show-off and tends to feel superior but she’s also a girl with a lot on her mind. Barbier has an easy confessional manner, and an endearing way of twisting her fingers while she tries to find the wording that will seem best to her many imagined listeners.
And listening is an important factor. As a scribe, Anne is always listening to what the others say, watching what they do. Fights between the Van Daans take place on a stage within the stage, as it were. But even more tellingly, the ears and eyes of the enemy are to be feared and are always assumed. Sound and silence, and personal space, have special status in this play, creating a world of limitation that, while wearying, is never boring.
Everyone in the cast is so believable as to seem born to their parts. As Mr. Otto Frank, Frank Van Putten achieves and maintains the unflappable tone of a father as successful businessman and his family’s dependable rock. He’s not the kind to despair or go under due to weakness of character. The other male adults in hiding, Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) and Mr. Dussel (Jonathan Messica) are shown to be weak in their own ways, apt to be querulous and selfish.
As the wives, Mrs. Edith Frank and Mrs. Van Daan, Joni Weisfeld and Lisa Bostnar help to establish the contrast between the families: Mrs. Frank has no sense of life or purpose apart from her family, though she is resented by Anne for favoring the “perfect” (and perfectly self-effacing) Margot (Ruthy Froch); Mrs. Van Daan never misses an opportunity to express bitterness toward her husband, who sometimes reacts in anger, but when he is put upon by Mrs. Frank for stealing bread, she supports him. Their son, Peter (Alex Rafala) is the only character besides Anne who can be said to grow and the romantic interest of the play comes from seeing how Anne plays a part in that. The courtship—as the adults see it—comes as a welcome little drama to divert them from their lack of prospects.
Objects have special status as well. A Hanukah celebrated with gifts from Anne to each of her fellow inmates says something about her attitude toward each; a fur coat becomes an emblem of personal worth and sentimental attachment but also a means to an end. The action is mostly through Anne’s eyes but the other characters—including Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies and Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler, the two essential helpers who provide the necessities for a life lived in hiding—have enough stature to provide the context of familiarity and resentment and sympathy and love that sustains Anne’s ultimately misplaced faith in humanity.
Producing the show at any time is an act of historical testimony, but these days it can be considered a public service announcement. Playhouse on Park has revived a touching reminder that is also a dire warning.
The Diary of Anne Frank
By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Ezra Barnes
Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor, Judi Manfre; Stage Manager: Corin Killins
Cast: Isabelle Barbier, Lisa Bostner, Michael Enright, Ruthy Froch, Jonathan D. Mesisca, Frank van Putten, Alex Rafala, Allen Lewis Rickman, Elizabeth Simmons, Joni Weisfeld
Playhouse on Park
October 25-November 19, 2017