KPBS AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 22, 1999
In Amsterdam, you can visit the site. You can climb up the steep steps of the narrow canal-house, past the bookcase/door to the claustrophobic garret where eight people lived for two years, hiding from the Nazis until they were discovered and carted off to concentration camps. Only one of them — the father — survived. But his little girl, the budding writer who chronicled their lives in the “Secret Annex,” lives on in the hearts and minds of millions.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” was published in 1947. Hollywood screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett turned it into a Pulitzer Prize-winning play in 1955, and later, a movie. Several years ago, after Otto Frank had died, an unexpurgated version of the diary was released, reinstating the parts a prudish and protective father chose to omit. Last year, a new revision of the play, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, took Broadway by storm. Now that version is making its San Diego debut, at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
The book, the movie and the play show people trying to create a feeling of normality in a world that is hideously evil. Quarters are cramped; nerves are frayed. Someone hoards bread or hogs the toilet. A young girl, 13 at the time she goes into hiding, begins to come of age, and experiences her first crush and her first kiss from the boy whose family shares the Annex with the Franks. What happens for 2 1/4 hours onstage seems to be petty and of little consequence. But the disparity between the refugees’ desire for quotidian stability and the full horror of the Holocaust around them is what gives the play its dramatic tension.
In staging “Anne Frank,” it’s easy to descend into melodrama, mawkishness or terminal gravity. It’s tempting to present the players as caricatures, not three-dimensional, everyday humans with assets as well as glaring faults. This is Anne’s story, of course, filtered through her perceptions of her sister’s brilliance, her mother’s sternness and her father’s eternal sagacity. In this new version, there’s more of Anne’s burgeoning sexual awareness, more of her antipathy to her mother. But it’s not all dark and depressing. The lively, precocious and opinionated Anne could also be very humorous.
North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director Sean Murray has tried to balance all these elements in his poignant production. The result is reverential, not maudlin, though it starts off at a sluggish pace. The piece gains momentum, and ascends to moments of breathless suspense, as footsteps are heard on the stairs, and time — on and off the stage — is suspended. Although Anne and her father are the most sympathetic characters, this is clearly an ensemble production. Murray, as usual, has cast well, and everyone, including Ruby Rose the cat, turns in an extremely credible performance.
Scenic designer Marty Burnett has created a wonderfully cramped and crowded living space, dimly lighted, underscored by an evocative sound design. Lisa Maria Guzman, fresh from her stellar turn in “Arcadia,” is a delightful, outstanding Anne — boisterous, self-aware and self-absorbed, endlessly inquisitive, young but wise beyond her years, heart-wrenching in her pubescent ability to speak the unspeakable while still maintaining optimism and hope. Charlie Riendeau plays the kind of gentle, calm, compassionate father anyone would die for. The rest of the cast is very solid; no cartoonish, screamy Mrs. Van Daan, persnickety Dussel the dentist, or sputtering, stuttering Peter. These are just plain folks, trapped in a small space, herded together because of a shared religion, snared in a web of wickedness they can not, will never, escape.
The maxim of the Jews has always been “Never forget.” As everyone extols the virtues and inventions of the 20th century, it’s a good time to remember the millennium’s monstrousness as well… and one small, bright light in a very dark time.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.