Play: The Diary of Anne Frank
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 7
Tickets: From $18; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Businessman Otto Frank and his wife and daughters left their native Germany in 1933 when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party gained control of the German government. The Jewish family moved to Amsterdam, but by 1940 they were trapped in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. When eldest daughter Margo was ordered to report to a Nazi work camp and virtual certain death in July 1942 the Franks went into hiding in a “secret annex” in the 300-year-old building that housed Otto Frank’s company, along with his business partner Mr. van Daan and his wife and son, and soon after a Jewish dentist.
They were sheltered by a few friends, including Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, who brought them food and outside communication after the business closed at night. They lived this way, in scared silence throughout each day, until they were found by Nazi soldiers two years later and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank, the younger of Otto and Edith’s two children, kept a diary of their ordeal from her 13th birthday in 1942 until their capture, a book later given to Otto Frank by Miep Gies after the war.
Highlights: The Rep has mounted a compelling production of the 1997 adaptation by playwright Wendy Kesselman, who included “new-found writings that were withheld from original publications,” such as the 1955 adaptation by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Kesselman’s version focuses more on the intrinsic Jewish ethnicity of the major characters, and director Steven Woolf and his technical crew work wonders conveying the oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere in which the eight refugees were held captive prior to their capture.
John Ezell’s set design is absolutely stunning, a formidable three-story structure that stands perilously atop the Rep stage, much akin to the actual museum visited by Ezell and Woolf last year, appropriately shaping the proceedings in various bedrooms, dining area or attic. It’s beautifully and hauntingly lit by Phil Monat’s design that consistently conveys the stark reality, while Elizabeth Covey’s costumes pinpoint the era precisely. Rusty Wandall’s sound design, whether the blare of sirens during air raids or the somber tones of a BBC radio reporter, blend seamlessly into the setting.
Other Info: Woolf’s direction is tightly focused on the story, so much so that the two acts pass quickly despite the stifled environment of the characters, and he elicits an array of splendid and moving performances by his cast. Diminutive Lauren Orkus is a marvel as the precocious Anne, embodying the spirit as well as the body of a slight 13-year-old, whether in her periodic fits of pique or wonder at the joys of everyday life despite her hellish circumstances.
John Rensenhouse provides a wonderfully steady turn as the kindly Otto Frank, while Ann Talman shows both the anguish and durability of Edith Frank, who is pained by her younger daughter’s ongoing personality conflict with her even as Anne idolizes her father. Maggie Wetzel is steady as older, “reliable” Margot.
Peggy Billo offers several excellent moments as the brash Mrs. van Daan, including a powerful moment when her husband decides to sell the beloved fur coat given to her by her father. Peter Van Wagner conveys the resigned if surly nature of Mr. van Daan, while Gary Wayne Barker is at his reliable best as the prickly, churlish dentist Mr. Dussel. Andrew Stroud, Jerry Vogel and Maura Kidwell all provide well-crafted characterizations of lonely teen Peter van Daan and the trustworthy Mr. Kraler and Miep, respectively.
Certainly, The Diary of Anne Frank is a depressing story, reflected by the modest size of the opening night audience. Kesselman’s adaptation, though, and Woolf’s meticulous direction make for a moving presentation.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.