By the time the Nazis burst into the secret annex, behind the bookcase where the Frank family and others have been hiding for the past two years, to haul them away to death camps, and you haven't shed a tear, then I suggest you haven't got a heart.
This Theater for Youth presentation from Main Street Theater of The Diary of Anne Frank is superlative in every way. It affects you deeply.
Adapted by Wendy Kasselman from the prize-winning play (Pulitzer, Tony, and Academy Award) by Hollywood A-listers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the true story of the family's harrowing and dramatically solid story is universal in appeal and works on every level. Playing in sold-out shows for student matinees, it was positively uplifting to see so many kids at MATCH on a Sunday night. There were muffled sobs on exit and many tears in young eyes. Live theater can work miracles.
For 25 months, eight Jews in Amsterdam hid from the Nazis in the upper backrooms of the family's spice warehouse on the busiest canal in the city. Otto Frank had transferred the business to his partner after the 1940 Nazi invasion which ushered in the Reich's hideous decrees which forbade non-Aryans from owning property...or going to the movies, or swimming at the public pools, or walking in parks, or serving in government, or being a judge, or marrying a non-Jew, or attending school.
In July 1942, sensing more disasters to come, Frank bundled his family (wife Edith and teenage daughters Margot and Anne) and slipped into the annex wearing as many layers of clothing as they could manage. A week later, Mr. and Mrs. van Pels and son Peter joined them, Four months later, dentist Pfeffer, a friend of the Van Pels, pleaded to be hidden with them. The eight were aided by four of Frank's most trusted co-workers who brought them food, books, cigarettes, a forbidden radio, and Anne's favorite movie magazines. From 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. every night, they couldn't make a sound, go to the bathroom, use the sink, or move except on tiptoe. Sunday was their free time, when the warehouse below was closed for business. Suddenly, on an anonymous tip to the SS, they were arrested. To this day, history does not know who betrayed them. Only Otto Frank returned alive from the hell of Auschwitz.
We wouldn't know anything at all about this, except that young Anne kept a diary about her years in the attic hideaway rooms. She very much wanted to be a famous writer, if not a movie star, and had hopes that her writing would be published in the future. She never could have foreseen that her intimate diary – full of teen angst, anger at her mother, love for her father, burgeoning feeling for young Peter, details of mundane life – would become a classic of the human spirit and the indomitable will to survive, nor that her deep rimmed-eyed face would become the worldwide image of the Holocaust.
Kasselman's adaptation adds more Jewish flavor to the classic play and a bit more emerging sexuality for young Anne, growing up before our eyes, but the built-in tension of the original is self-evident. Our breath stops with each unintentional clang of dishes in the sink or when Peter knocks over a chair putting out the light when a noise in the warehouse below startles them. We're well aware of the ultimate horror to come, but still we hope. Maybe this time...
The eight are on slow boil throughout the ordeal, with petty nuisances threatening their habitual confinement. Marcella Alba, as Anne, starts out on an amphetamine high, hopping about in overdrawn approximation of youthful high spirits, but soon settles into the role, if only because the reality is so very dire. Once she puts aside her manic tics, she gives a very heartfelt performance.
This being a well-crafted play of the old school, everyone gets to shine. Old pro Carl Masterson is the heart of the family, the solid center, as Otto Frank, calming the waters and being its moral arbiter. Amy K. Barnes, as prickly wife Edith, never adjusts to a life being taken away from her. She and Anne have a running battle, and only near the end do they settle on a shaky truce. Barnes is particularly fine as wanting to connect with her feisty daughter but hasn't a clue how to accomplish it.
The Van Danns (a.k.a. the Van Pels), are nicely limed by Shane Manning and Chaney Moore. Both are out of their element in the dank attic, and when the money runs out and cigarettes non-existent, there's nothing left to sell except her beloved fur coat, her last tie to the past. It's a highlight in the play, and dramatically performed. As is Manning's stealing of the bread in the middle of the night. He's mortified to be caught eating the rations on the sly, and his silent weeping in humiliation is humanly heartbreaking.
Jordi Viscarri is young Peter, shy and innocent, and rather afraid of the irrepressible Anne, who mocks him tirelessly – mocks everyone really – until they both realize they have only each other to talk to while they grow up. His attentions quickly shift from his cat to Anne in the attic room where there is sunlight and the sight of the chestnut tree in bloom. He's very good. So is Megan Jankovic, as older daughter Margot, the good daughter, who's always been in Anne's lively shadow. Shell-shocked at first, she gently comes around, but really doesn't mean it. You can see the coming doom in Jankovic's eyes and posture.
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Dentist Dussel (Pfeffer, in real life) is played by Seth Cunningham with the endearment of cactus spines. He hates it up here, hates everyone, and mostly hates himself. It's a searing portrait of a man caught in hell, longing to run free to his beloved, but trapped for how long he can't even fathom. Bonnie Langthorn is angelic Miep Gies who brings dwindling rations and, usually, bad news from the outside. When she barges in with news of D-Day, the shabby place shines if only for an instant. (Gies went into the attic the day after the arrests and found Anne's diary and loose papers scattered over the loft. She hid them in hopes someone in the family would eventually come to collect them. She had no idea only Otto would show up one fateful day.) Jonathon Teverbaugh is Otto's partner Mr. Kraler, another outside saint in this story without many saintly people.
Except for Anne's bouncing enthusiasm at the start, director Vivienne M. St. John handles the tension and mounting terror expertly, keeping our focus on the petty squabbles and daunting external pressure. Torsten Louis' multi-leveled claustrophobic set is a wonder; Donna Southern Schmidt's costumes are period shabby; Bryan Ealey's lighting is expressively dim; and Shawn W. St. John's sound design is taut and eerie. Those screeching European police sirens are aptly cringe-worthy.
In the worst twist of historic irony, Anne Frank got her wish. With the publication of Diary of a Young Girl, edited and sanitized by her father in 1957, she became an overnight sensation – the writer she always hoped would “write something great” and more famous than any movie star. Her horrible death is her legacy, but her unquenched spirit, her unconquered hope, is living testament to the human flame that burns in all of us. She and her diary will live forever.
The Diary of Anne Frank continues at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. February 16 at MATCH, 3400 Main. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $16-$26 with discounts for school groups.