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Review: THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Captures Charm and Tragedy at Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre

Now through February 25th.

By: Feb. 14, 2023
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The story of Anne Frank has been immortalized in her own words for decades. Her writings range from the amusing to the dramatic to the tragic, but in their essence, they capture something so fleeting: a girl struggling to become a woman in unspeakable circumstances. Her firsthand account of hiding from Nazis shows us a different side of history, one that can't be summed up in a chapter in a textbook. The Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre has brought her story to life on stage in THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman, and their retelling brings out new sides to Anne's story and pushes you to see this time period from new viewpoints.


THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK has long held a place in my heart. I remember reading her diary at a young age and feeling often like I was finding myself in the pages. She has such relatable struggles as a teenage girl. How do I handle having a favorite parent? Why am I always being compared to my sibling? What do I do about this crush? How can I avoid adults when they're so annoying? It all played out on the stage at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, and I was drawn in by every minute.

This particular play presents a unique challenge: finding a young actress with enough range to show Anne during her teenage transition. Luckily, Gemma Rollison was up for that challenge and handled it with grace. She captivated the audience with her antics and childish charm in the first parts of the play. Her movements and characterizations encapsulated the spitfire spirit of Anne as well as the somewhat annoying nature of her jokes and intense reactions to small slights. As Anne began to grow, however, Gemma brought a new weight to her character. There were still heaps of charm, but Anne now has a more developed sense of self and a new weariness brought on by the strain of living in hiding with eight people in cramped quarters.

In order for Anne to truly shine, she has to have a good balance with Peter van Daan, and Garrett Rowe did not disappoint. He had "awkward teenage boy" written all over him from the first time he stumbled into the Annex. He emphasized both the physical and emotional awkwardness of his age and the difficulties of living with a teenage girl like Anne. His interactions with his co-star Gemma created moments of levity and tenderness that almost made you forget the sad circumstances of these two young people.

Another standout among the cast for me was Carrie Reiberg as Mrs. Van Daan. She had me in stitches several times, but she also touched me emotionally in ways I hadn't anticipated. It could be very easy for Mrs. Van Daan to become more of a caricature than a believable person, but Ms. Reiberg made sure to bring out the humanity of her character. This is especially evident when she's called on to sell her treasured fur coat. It could be tempting to call Mrs. Van Daan selfish for holding onto a luxury when they already have so little, but instead I saw a woman who was forced to let go of an important piece of her past and her personal history. It served as a bleak reminder of the reality of the Annex and what it meant to leave life behind in a desperate bid to survive.

The scenic and lighting design by Ryan Koharchik and the sound and projections design by Michael J. Lasley also enhanced the storytelling on stage. The set created spaces for intense and tender moments while also reminding the audience that eight people were crammed into a tiny space. The projections served as a reminder that you are not just witnessing a story but a moment in history that included unspeakable and inhuman acts. As a whole, these technical aspects create an immersive experience that takes you back into that time.

The entire cast did an exceptional job bringing this story to the stage. It had heart, wit, and humor that found balance with evil, desperation, and tragedy. There was an attention to detail that showed a deep respect for this story and the people who played a part in it.


I'm aware that the history, the volume and the stage drama "The Diary of Anne Frank" is supposed to be inspirational, a ray of sunshine in the otherwise murky world of Adolph Hitler, his Nazi underlings, and most of the people residing in the Axis Powers nations who knew full well what was going on. After all, the teenage Anne is cheerful, spirited, and full of positivity, even as her family and their friends hide in a cramped attic in Amsterdam to evade the death camps during World War II.

Maybe that is why it is crucial to see - and take our children to see - The Diary of Anne Frank, the play of the young girl's life in the attic. It is a well-done production, thanks to a great cast, Claire Wilcher's fine direction, Ryan Koharchik's compelling light design, and Michael Lasley's spot-on sounds.

It's a blunt reminder that even smart, well-educated people like the Germans, Italians, and other Axis forces freely carried out Nazi principles against innocent people, simply for the reason of their religious beliefs or ethnicity.

Gemma Rollison shined as the bubbly 13-year-old Anne. Viewing the attic hideaway as a romantic journey, she confided to her diary her little peeves, expanding sexual awareness, and hope for the future, even as the days grinded into years.

David Wood was rock solid as Anne's father, Otto Frank. He was supportive, sensible, and a tireless peace-maker among the occasional controversial attic residents. Petricone highlighted Otto Frank's soothing manner when he stepped in to console his frazzled wife, Edith (an excellent Brittany Magee), when she seemed to give up the struggle. Or when he calms down the contentious Mr. Dussel (Mookie Harris) or defends the shallow, selfish Mr. Van Daan (a super Jay Hemphill) against the other residents.

Carrie Reiberg was outstanding as the formerly pampered and precocious Mrs. Van Daan. Her long fur coat signified her standing. But Reiberg made this socialite warm and real as she bustled about the bare-bones kitchen and makes meals almost out of thin air, cleans the table, and calls her husband to task.

Garrett Rowe was darling as the gangly, unsure teen Peter van Daan, edging his way toward maturity as his relationship with Anne blossoms.

The Diary of Anne Frank is less than two hours long, including intermission, and is absorbing from the first scene to the last. The play reveals Anne's most famous line, "I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart," as either bright optimism, or in hindsight, as bleak irony.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK will be on stage at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre through February 25th. Take time to laugh, cringe, and cry with the eight people who tried to hide from one of the greatest evils the world has ever witnessed.


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