TU's 'Diary of Anne Frank': Updated, But Unimproved

◊◊◊ out of five.  This production contains a realistic depiction of the "hidden Jews" during WWII and on stage smoking. 

History has made The Diary of Anne Frank a significant document, one that by sheer luck was found years after its writing and published in various forms with the blessing (and editing) of her father, Otto.  Her voice has been a powerful one, speaking to generations of school children the world over, taught in schools and presented as a stage play since its debut in the 1950's.  The film version is also beloved and won Shelley Winters an Oscar, but the stage play won the Tony and the Pultizer Prize for its authors, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

While the fact that the play was somewhat fictionalized has never been in doubt.  The original play is long on sentiment.  In this day and age of "revisals", it is no surprise then, that when the play was revived on Broadway in the late 1990's, it underwent some serious cutting and adding.  The "new adaptation" by Wendy Kesselman, one assumes was intended to be less sentimental and more sensational.  Gone are some quainter exchanges between Anne and her father, and a prologue that has Otto finding the diary after his release from the camps, and a few other bits.  Among the things added are some voiceovers of segment of Anne's diary that salaciously titillate with lesbian themes, and still others that make her attraction toward Peter sound like the horny ramblings of a hypersexual tart.  These quotes are directly from her diary, but are taken seriously out of context in the play.  The running time may be pared down, but the heart of the play is sadly gone, sentimental or not.  And the sexual innuendos presented by Ms. Kesselman seem current, but decidedly worthy of inclusion in the National Enquirer, not in a tribute to a young woman who dreamed of big things and achieved more than most of us ever will.  What was added versus what was deleted has, for this reviewer, ruined a play that should leave you feeling moved and exalted.  Instead, one feels like having sat through an A&E Biography, efficient, but cold.   It is this version of the play that opened last weekend at Towson University

That this play is being done at the university level may be a surprise to some, but really shouldn't be.  Yes, it is a staple in high schools and community theatres, but Towson's theatre department is clearly going for more, and rightly so.  In a post 9/11 world, Anne message is all the more important - her life all the more to be valued - as we search for heroes in a world more dangerous than she probably could have ever imagined.  Clearly, many of the world's leaders learned nothing from history, as systematic genocide continues, and we creep ever more closely to a world-wide conflict.  Kudos to the college for bringing a serious production of this important work to the stage. 

Retired professor John Manlove returns to Towson to direct this classic, and he somewhat succeeds.  This production seems overly cautious.  Each line carefully doled out, sometimes at the expense of flow and timing.  And other times, there is absolutely no tension in what should feel like a powder keg ready to blow.  Much of this has to do with the adaptation of the play, which assumes that we already know these people and have connected to them.  Thus, when the first crisis comes up and the hidden scramble to be silent, we in the audience feel nothing.  They are doing what they should, nothing more, nothing less.  Again, the adaptation sets it up this way.  However, there is one part of the play that is inexplicably void of any tension, let alone feeling, and this, has more to do with a lack of attention to detail than a faulty script.  At the very end of the play, the cast is sitting around eating strawberries, a treat they haven't had in years.  Then, silently, while "the hidden" chit chat the Nazis arrive and arrest them.  After all of the hoopla that surrounds hearing a burglar below at one point, and the fact that a large book case has been placed in front of the door below, it is clear that they can hear noise below as much as those below might hear them.  So how is it that the Nazis arrive and collect their "prize" with no noise?  No one heard them coming?  They felt no need to shout orders?  It felt as if the stage manager might have decided time was up and sent the Nazis up the stairs.  The lack of tension and the subsequent speech by Otto the details of each family member's death bring the whole thing to a shockingly dull end. 

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James was first bitten by the theatre bug at the tender young age of 11, when, at the last minute, he was called upon to replace a classmate who, 42nd STREET-like, broke his leg, in a play, of all things, about the skeletal system! It was a trip to New York with his high school drama teacher to see Angela Lansbury in MAME that sealed his fate. As an actor, favorite roles include Sheridan Whiteside in THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, Potiphar in JOSEPH..., Col. Pickering in MY FAIR LADY, and Sancho Panza?s ass in MAN OF LA MANCHA. After spending a summer feeling very conflicted playing both an apostle AND a high priest in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, James' theatre career took a turn toward direction and design, including such varied productions as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, LOST IN YONKERS, GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER and GRAND HOTEL, SIDE SHOW, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD and SWEENEY TODD. James holds a Bachelor's degree in English from Towson University, with additional course work in journalism, dramaturgy, scenic design and stage direction. He is living proof that you can be a devout Sondheim fan AND love MAMMA MIA!

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