Italian Jewish author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote, “One single Anne Frank moves us more than the countless others who suffered just as she did but whose faces have remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is better that way; if we were capable of taking in all the suffering of all those people, we would not be able to live.”
Levi didn’t consider himself a hero for surviving 11 months at Auschwitz and it’s likely that Anne Frank would not have called herself heroic for surviving 25 months with her family and four others in hiding. Yet the teenage diarist has become a hero, her writings read and studied around the world. Her life — and death — a marker not only of the Holocaust, but of suffering and prejudice of all stripes.
Last month in The New York Times, opinion writer Nicholas Kristof stated, “Today, to our shame, Anne Frank is a Syrian girl.” Before the Frank family hid in the now-famous Secret Annex in the middle of Amsterdam, father Otto Frank wrote numerous letters to U.S. agencies, among others, seeking asylum.
The outcome of American refusal to accept Jewish refugees during World War II is known — 6 million Jewish lives lost. And it makes the famous diary of a vivacious young girl trapped in a diabolical political nightmare ever relevant.
A new production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” its play originally penned in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is on stage at Olney Theatre Center through Oct. 23. When it premiered on Broadway just a decade after the Holocaust, the play received a Pulitzer Prize and was successful, becoming a popular movie in 1959.
Olney’s production includes updates from a 1997 adaptation by Wendy Kesselman. Most notable is a passage from the diary that has Anne ruminating about her attraction to a female school friend and her growing awareness of her changing body. As well, an epilogue, from father Otto Frank — the only survivor of the eight hidden in the annex – provides details drawn from historical research about what occurred after the Franks, the van Daans and Mr. Dussel were captured and brought to the Westbord transit camp.
Olney’s production, directed by artistic associate Derek Goldman, eschews the solemnity and portent that many “Anne Frank” stagings seem to esteem. In this case, the more modern sensibility rests in Carolyn Faye Kramer’s portrayal of Anne as a talkative, adventure-loving teen whose vivacity bursts through the gloomy hidden rooms of the Secret Annex.
Kramer, with her untamable curly bob and high pitched voice and a sometimes detectable lisp, plays Anne with childlike wonder. A hiding place behind a moving bookshelf! A brand-new red-plaid diary to record all her thoughts! A corner of her bedroom plastered with pictures of her beloved movie stars! We’ve all known this high-strung teenager.
Encircling this volatile personality, Anne’s family and the others in hiding pale in comparison. Particularly “good girl” older sister Margot, who Dani Stoller allows to sometimes recede into the shadows of the extended family. Peter van Daan, the 16-year-old son of the van Daans, wallows in his shyness and we never see his developing attraction for the young Anne — a key component of the play.
As Otto, Paul Morella seems oddly out of place, too American in his positivity as the head of the household in this very European milieu. Wife Edith in Brigid Cleary’s hands is a portrait of worry and depression. It becomes evident early on why mother and daughter Anne clash — their personalities are complete opposites.
Mr. van Daan is typically cast as a heavy-set man, the reason for his mooching food, but Eric Hissom is far from overweight He and his wife, played as spoiled, by not excessively so, by Susan Rome, are less caricatures of a bickering married couple than is often the case. And Michael Russotto’s Mr. Dussel, the Jewish dentist the families agreed to take in, is less contentious, too, than typical. All this leaves Anne at the center of attention.
Misha Kachman’s set for the intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab suggests the suffocating closeness and gloomy darkness the group must endure. As with the costumes, particularly in Act II, a shabbier, even sparser appearance would be in order. That goes for the actors as well, who would be gaunter, paler and more sickly in Act II. Anne, too, would have matured and have lost some of her childishness.
Kramer’s portrait, though, lacks the intellectual and emotional growth that Anne struggled through in her diary, which makes it so compelling a read. Alas, this becomes the production’s greatest flaw: even though she has grown emotionally, Kramer’s vision doesn’t fully express her character’s hopes and dreams. This more thoughtful nature gets lost in the too child-like demeanor the actor maintains throughout.
For those who think they know Anne Frank, the story, the character, the play, or the film, this production will feel both familiar and surprisingly fresh, much due to the more muscular and well-paced direction from Goldberg. As well, the play remains always new for someone, particularly teenagers and young adults, who may not have encountered Frank’s writings in school.
But the more compelling case for the continued currency of Anne Frank’s story is the unrelenting worldwide refugee crisis: From Vietnam to Haiti, from Cuba to Sudan, from Serbia to Syria, Anne Frank remains with us in every generation.
“The Diary of Ann Frank,” through Oct. 23, Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Tickets from $45. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.