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. 

However, the entire company has benefited immensely from Manlove's obvious attention to stage business.  Every single cast member has mastered that difficult task, especially in a play where they are within sight of the audience for 95% of the play (including the intermission) and are carrying out the mundane tasks of day to day life in hiding.  Their director has also taken great strides in creating realistic, meaningful blocking, carefully executed so as to look completely natural and unrehearsed, but clearly very specific. 

Several cast members give performances that raise this piece to a commendable level.  Lindsey M. Nixon, as Petronella Van Daan, is a sharp actress, walking that fine line between making her character a comic one, full of pomposity, and a pitiful one.  She gets her laughs where intended, and offers several very impressive moments of bold, honest feelings.  Jessica Talson as the meek Margot Frank also works wonders with a deceptively difficult role.  She doesn't get to say much, but when she does it has impact, and this young actress clearly understands that it is her job to create the presence of a young woman that the others talk about at length.  Perhaps the best attention to detail also goes to her - the look of guilt on her face as the fact that she has been called up by the Nazis, thereby forcing her entire family into hiding without full preparation -  is very touching, indeed. 

But the two almost revelatory performances come from James Johnson as the sweetly awkward boy/man, Peter van Daan and from Ashley Ingram as Anne.  Mr. Johnson gives perhaps the most realistic physical portrayal of male gawkishness and clumsiness I've seen, including the Broadway cast of Spring Awakening.  Wordlessly, and with cleverly calibrated trips and skids, Johnson's Peter is a walking ode to awkwardness and angst.  Some of his best moments are when he reacts to his father's less than caring attitude toward him, and when he stands up to the utterly foolish Mr. Dussel.  Miss Ingram inhabits her role full force with an amazing earnestness and admirable commitment.  In her opening scene, she absolutely perfect as the loudmouthed, overly precocious child Anne Frank was by all accounts.  She literally gets on your nerves, but here that is a good thing, as it gives us a chance to see a starting point from which all else springs.  I also give her much credit for delivering that awful speech about her infatuation with her best girlfriend with as much believability as she could muster (especially in the face of a decidedly rude segment of the audience who felt the need to giggle and comment loudly - another example of why this adaptation really plays to the lowest common denominator).  Needless to say, with two such excellent performers at hand, the scene where Anne and Peter share their first date and first kiss is expertly played and is profoundly touching.  Alas, it also points up the lack of such emotion elsewhere.  Both Miss Ingram and Mr. Johnson bear remembering in future productions. 

Caitlyn Joy does what she has to with the role of Edith, Anne's mother and subject of her ire, but the actress offers little more than what is required and nothing much more.  The same could be said for Andrew Peters' Mr. Dussel who annoys more than infuriates, though he does an excellent slow burn as he waits to get into his room while Anne primps.  Crystal Luberecki and Ryan C. Airey as Miep and Mr. Kraler, the link between the annex and the outside world barely register, so bland are their portrayals.  Both deliver their lines as if they were memorized moments before, and have virtually no character. 

Nicholas O. Staigerwald physically inhabits his role of overbearing, blustery Mr. Van Daan quite well.  His line delivery, often resembling the cadence and tone of a game show host, pretty much ruins any and all inroads he makes with the character's bearing.  When he is "angry" he sounds kind of bitchy, not mean.  RoBert Scott Hitcho in the other pivotal role of Otto Frank looks fatherly and acts the age of his character quite well, though his line delivery needs some work as well.  Often, he comes across as whiny rather than exhausted, and more like MR. Rogers than a concerned, protective father.  Perhaps most telling in his performance is the decided lack of connection he has with every other member of his family.  He says the right words, and hugs and holds on cue, but with little or nothing behind it.  The lack of nuance in either of these father roles is disappointing. 

Given that this is a college production, which includes a dramaturgy component (Angels in America had an entire crew.  This show has one person.  Are the AIDS raveged 80's harder to replicate than the war torn 40's?), one might expect a fastidiously researched production.  True, there are some interesting notes in the program and a nice display of pictures of the actual annex and the actual people (including their real names) outside the theatre.  The program includes the misspelling of the Van Daan (here it is spelled Van Dann) family - and yes, I know that wasn't their real name to begin with, but they were Dutch, after all.  But onstage is where it counts.  Daniel Ettinger, perhaps this area's finest set designer has certainly filled the large stage area, complete with levels, staircases and a warren of rooms.  But even the lobby pictures betray the fact that the annex wasn't nearly as spacious as this set, and not nearly as well appointed.  Nice chair and lamp in the living room!?  Never once does one get the feeling of claustrophobia that surely clawed at these people after months squished together.  Finally, I have seen many a production of this play where absolutely no accents were employed.  Here, some characters have them, others don't.  Still others only have accents on certain words.  Ok, it is knit picky to assume that they would pronounce Peter's name as "Pater."  But it is unconscionable that the title character's name is never pronounced correctly.  Her name is not pronounced like "on".  Her name end with an unsilent "e", making her name in Dutch (and German, for that matter) pronounced "on-eh".  These small details should be part of the learning, and therefore, part of the production.

Two technical aspects of this production are quite excellent and help fill in the gaps that the script and some performances leave.  Justin Van Hassel's moody, shadowy and deep lighting create emotion and tension that otherwise is missing, and his lighting of several intimate scenes creates a sense of distance from the rest of the action.  It guides the audience.  And there is Eric Seidl's sound design, which starts off the evening with a scary sound of a train approaching and through to its rickety leaving in the distance - a chilling reminder of the trains taking the Jews to their deaths.  Similarly, his perfectly balanced voiceovers create an eerie feeling that Anne, herself, is speaking to us from beyond the grave. 

Despite some performances that could use more polish, this Anne Frank is a worthwhile endeavor.  You get to see several fine performances of a classic, yet contemporary, tale of heroics in the face of unbelievable atrocity.  Would that this new adaptation had left well enough alone - everything old needn't be new and improved.  This version is just the opposite.

PHOTOS: Ashley Ingram and RoBert Scott Hitcho in The Diary of Anne Frank.  Courtesy of Towson University.

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