BWW Reviews: A. D. Players' THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK is Deeply Moving
The A. D. Players is in the middle of celebrating their 47th season of theatre. Notorious for providing Houston audiences with thought-provoking and inspirational pieces of theatre, they are kicking off 2014 in the same fashion with their deeply moving production of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's award-winning play, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK.
The narrative surrounding the life of Anne Frank, the girl who inevitably became one of the iconic voices of The Holocaust, is generally well known. The play focuses on the two years that the Frank family and their friends hid in a small attic to avoid persecution from the Nazis. After being gifted with a diary from her much beloved father, Anne records all of her experiences during hiding. However familiar the tale may be, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's play THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, is continually hopeful and provides a somewhat uplifting portrayal of events. Direction by Tawny Stephens deftly brings all of the emotional elements of the script to life. In a show where most of the cast is on stage at all times, her direction excels at showing how these families tried to cling to a semblance of normal life while hiding in the attic. Thus, we are presented with an array of characters that convincingly spend their two years of hiding in not only fear and frustration, but camaraderie and hope.
Jennifer Gilbert delivers a strong and dynamic performance as the titular Anne Frank. She portrays Anne with a sense of innocence that cannot be compromised despite the potential horrors that linger in the outside world. When they first move into the attic, she is overly youthful and is often regarded as a household pest. She is brash, opinionated, and overly playful. While she does a good job showing the youthful side of Anne, sometimes it appears a bit too over the top for such an intimate venue. With that said, she infuses her character with a great sense of depth as she matures in her thinking and mannerisms throughout the production, showing her growth over the two year time period. Moreover, Jennifer Gilbert is truly a joy to watch on stage as she brings Anne's lightheartedness and frank wit to life, making some of the most memorable moments of the production.
Playing Mr. Frank, Ric Hodgin creates a rich character that is both encouraging and protective. He fills the tiny attic with a winsome charm as he tries to convince the two families that they can have somewhat of a normal life during hiding, and as he lovingly cares for his daughters. However, it is the solemnity and reverence that Ric Hodgin exudes in the final scenes that will stay with you long after the final moments of the play.
Jennifer Dean provides a warmhearted portrayal as Mrs. Frank. In the small attic where materials are scarce and tension mounts, she successfully embodies patience and fairness while prioritizing the needs of the children above her own. She does a good job showing her frustrations at her inability to connect with an ever-maturing Anne, a plot line that resolves a little too suddenly. Playing Margot Frank, Anne's older sister, Melissa Molano approaches her role with an appropriately soft quietness, crafting a demure character.
Sharing the small quarters with the Frank family, are the Van Daan's. Playing the patriarch of the family, Mr. Van Daan, Craig Griffin excels at being irascible and impatient as he complains about everything from the lack of cigarettes to his son's behavior. Likewise, Christy Watkins as Mrs. Van Daan does well to serve the plot, but her most memorable moments come at the truly heartbreaking scene where she is forced to part with her much-loved fur coat. Braden Hunt does a wonderful job playing Peter Van Daan. He both appears and acts like an adolescent boy, keeping very much to himself. However, as he becomes closer to Anne, he does a believable job showing the vulnerability and frustrations that lay deep within Peter.
After the two families have been living in the attic for some time, they are met with a late addition. Stephen Hurst plays Mr. Dussel, the fussy dentist who joins them in hiding. While his character seems quite ambiguously written, Stephen Hurst successfully brings out Dussel's socially awkward and anxious demeanor. Furthermore, Leslie Lenert and Kurt Bilanoski do good jobs as the benevolent friends Miep and Mr. Kraler.
The technical elements of this production are impressive. Robin Gillock's Scenic Design works well in the intimate venue. Using multiple levels, he creates a space that is cozy but constricted. His Scenic Design never allows the viewer to escape the close proximity that the two families and Mr. Dussel were forced to share for two years. Costume Design by Donna Southern Schmidt meticulously attends to every detail, and is appropriate for the 1942 time period. Andrew Vance's Lighting Design subtly allows focus to remain on the main action happen on the stage while continually emphasizing the presence of others in the surrounding areas. This forces a kind of inability to escape the fact that there is little, if any, privacy in the small attic. Furthermore, Sound Design by Mark A. Lewis works well with the Light Design, specifically in the scene transitions. Through these transitions the stage goes dark while the voice of Anne narrates from her journal, and the audience cannot help but remain engaged.
The A. D. Players' production of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK is a coming-of-age story of a young girl during trying times. The continual elements of fear and frustration are present, but are often overshadowed by the small moments of joy, humor, and unflinching sense of hope. The cast and crew do a good job providing audiences with a deeply moving production that is worth checking out.
Photos by Bara Photography. Photos courtesy of A. D. Players.