Farmers Alley’s “Anne Frank” reminds us that she is never far away
KALAMAZOO, Mich.–There is no question why Farmers Alley Theatre chose to mount The Diary of Anne Frank.
It speaks to any number of social issues facing our country today: antisemitism, totalitarianism, institutional endorsement of hate and racism.
The world seems very much on the brink of the kind of madness that drove young Anne Frank and her family and friends into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942.
It was while the family hid from the Nazis that Anne wrote her famous diary, on which the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett was based and which premiered in 1955. It received the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A 1997 revival, with revisions by Wendy Kesselman, received its own acclaim, and is the script used by Farmers Alley.
Anne, her sister Margot, and parents Otto and Edith Frank take shelter in a hidden annex with her father’s business acquaintance Mr. Van Daan, his wife and their shy son Peter. Some months into their captivity, they are joined by the dentist Mr. Dussel (an outstanding Ben Zylman, who comes into the play shell-shocked and horrified and morphs into a man both funny and gentle).
The play follows the families from the first day they move in, through the challenges of living a life cloistered above a factory, to their well-known doom. While the outside world roils in political and physical turmoil, signified by the sounds of storms, goose stepping soldiers, and bombings beyond the boarded-up windows, the families live out the stress by waging tiny wars with one another.
It’s not hard to imagine the hurts and frustrations that would pile up from too little food and too little space for eight people who must spend the majority of their day in silence so as to not tip off the workers below to their existence.
The VanDaans (Laurel Scheidt and Rory Lance) are both humble country-mice cousins living on the good graces of the Franks’ generous offer to share the apartment, and haughty and demanding city-mice who have little patience for the rough cruelty of their forced hiding.
The Franks (gracefully played by Fredric Stone and Patricia Daniels) are more stoic and persevering – except for Anne, who bounces off the wall with a hyperactivity that is supposed to pass off as precociousness.
In his director’s notes, Adam Weiner says the Kesselman version of the play offers more three-dimensional characters from the original work. And, true, no one is perfect here. Mrs. Frank (Daniels), is so restrained as to sometimes comes across as cold to her youngest daughter, but lovingly fragile. Mr. and Mrs. VanDaan (Lance and Scheidt) are the most bracingly honest in their frustrations. Stone occupies the heart of the production with his weary strength. The struggles weigh on him but he finds compassion
The most difficult balancing act is for the three young actors–Julianna Hirsh as Anne, Lauren Landman as Margot and Lucas Thomas as Peter. Their challenge is to portray the maturation of these young people through the two-year ordeal in the secret annex. They begin the play a touch too immature, not teenagers so much as petulant grade schoolers with puppy dog tendencies to yap incessantly or lick imaginary wounds sullenly, but they eventually blossom and soften and — in the instance of Anne and Peter — develop more meaningful relationships,
Immature and vain, proud and scared, loving and withdrawn, they are not a cast of perfect martyrs. They are more than that. They are average humans, deserving of the nothing more or less than other humans, the opportunity to live without fear or persecution.
Weiner’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank ends quietly and brutally. His staging is particularly striking, with the silent entry of the Nazis serving as a statement for the quiet complicity of all who failed to — fail to — defend against the powers that allowed their persecution. It is brief and nightmarish as their safe haven is violated.
Stone returns for a devastating closing monologue. Otto Frank, the lone survivor of the group, recalls the deaths of the others in the concentration camps — his cherished Anne dying just weeks before the Allied victory and liberation of the camps.
The story of The Diary of Anne Frank ends quietly and tragically and warns against the quiet that would allow it to happen again.