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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Diary of Anne Frank

She’s still there, when you walk in. Perched up in the corner of her desk, scribbling away. A vibrant little grasshopper preserved in amber, a relic of a time almost mythic in its enormities. Ready to walk us, once again, through the horror of the unimaginable. I must confess, dear reader, that there are times when I grow impatient with Miss Frank. I note the diary’s presence as relic of the times, and that the story of the eight who went to ground in July of 1942 needs to be told. But so do hundreds of thousands of millions of others: stories about jews, and gays, and gypsies, and intellectuals, and those who simply said, ‘thus far and no farther’. What is it makes their stories, of their survival or their deaths, less photogenic?

There is a trend, in both teaching and performing this story to sugarcoat it, make it a nice little radio drama: the Goofuses and the Gallants share an apartment, with plucky little Anne commenting on everything, as though their troubles were incidental things. Happily, adaptor Wendy Kesselman and director Dylan Pager are smart enough to keep the darkness at the corners of their story, and keep the struggles of Anne, her family and her friends immediate, uncomfortable, and sharp.

Anne Frank (Gavi Keyles) youngest daughter of Otto (Nick Raef) and Edith (Lindsay Chambers), was not a girl born for her times. She wanted to run, to dance, to explore, to shake the world by the lapels till the change fell out of its pockets. Instead, she and her sister Margot (Justine Gelfman) grew up in an Amsterdam oppressed, branded with yellow stars, denied all public pleasures and opportunities, with the grim reality of death and transportation ever present. Trusting his gentile friends Mr. Frank created a safe haven, a secret apartment in his building and invited his friends the lightly dysfunctional Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Drew Guerra and Elizabeth Romero) as well as their son Peter (Russell Kahn). Cooped up together for more than two years, living in constant fear and with no chance of leaving, the families stirred up conflicts, romances, and little touches of grace.

Pager has done his level best to keep the pot boiling and the outside dangers close to home. Even the most domestic of scenes contain an elements of danger, as raised passions, both jagged and jubilant, threaten the families' secrecy. There are times you forget the trajectory of this story and expect the nazi’s to come barreling in at any time. Set designer Jack Edison is to be congratulated for going along with this vision by placing lights underneath the floorboards, remind us of the hostile presences in the offices below.

Not to say that the play is not without lighter moments. Indeed Pager is seems to find more horror or awe in the everyday than in the weighty: he lends more weight to Anne’s diary entires describing the joys and frustrations of puberty than her profound thoughts about the world and human nature.He is very fortunate in being able to have a cast that can both balance the swords of Damocles on their heads and carry petty bones to pick in their hands. Both Anne and Peter are tricky pieces, often being encased in idealized armor of the brightest flowers of their generation awaiting the reaping blade, star crossed lovers thrown together in turbulent times, but Keyles and Kahn hitch their wagons to the fact that both their characters are so confused and adrenalized and young; they can be annoying sometimes, or prideful or awkward (it’s a glory to see their courtship jerking about in paroxysms of gawkiness, little nervous compliments) as well as darling and brave.

Another expert balancing act comes from Romero’s Mrs. Van Daan, traditional portrayed as the snooty society lady totally out of her element. Though Romero takes that aspect of her character in hand (her bidding games between herself and Mrs. Frank for Mr. Franks attention are a thing to behold) it is her love for her son and husband that bring a formerly secondary character into the foreground. She reminds us that just because Anne had the clearest voice doesn’t mean that life in the annex danced exactly to her tune.

Even amongst so much willing, and detailed work, I am sorry to say I must single out Raef’s Mr. Frank as being the crown of the cast. He most of all embodies their double duty: of keeping a minds eye on outside events, how they might save or destroy his little knit together family, and regulating that family so as to maintain maximum (though often short lived) harmony. His performance is finely wrought down to the most basic of gestures, stroking his thumb down the clasp of his daughters diary, as though comforting her second self, his raised eyebrow of socratic questioning when Anne comes to him with another complaint against her mother, calmly, without a hint of theatrics throwing open his kingdom to a strange jew with the words “where seven can eat, eight can also”. But by the end of the play, Raef has parceled out Otto’s reservoirs of gentleness and life so that he can make use of the cavernous despair that remains, an utterly shattered man bound only the story he must carry and share with the world.

Thus, by balancing the outside threat of the nazis, and the internal squabbles and cuddles of these now immortal eight, keeping the struggle alive and the relief of tension an actual boon, the show breathes fresh life into that girl still perched at her desk. It scrapes away the sugar coating, the “preciousness” of the story, emphasizing the struggle and not the heroics. Even if this is only one of millions of stories from “the last heroic time”, it is a story that must be told.

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