THEATER REVIEW: “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Cleveland Play House by Laura Kennelly

Photos by Roger Mastroianni

Through Sun 11/19

It’s both painful and important to realize that The Diary of Anne Frank is based on truth, not fiction. Drawn from incidents described in young Anne’s diary, this moving drama by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (adapted by Wendy Kesselman) is currently onstage at PlayhouseSquare.

The Cleveland Play House production, directed by Laura Kepley, brilliantly places us into Anne’s hidden life in Amsterdam during 1942-1944, a time when Nazi forces sought out and killed millions of Jews throughout Europe (as they had done from the beginning of World War II). Anne’s diary, found after her death, chronicled what happened when she and her family, as well as another couple, their son and a family friend spent two years hidden in a secret upper floor.

The claustrophobic possibilities of the intimate Outcalt Theatre’s stadium seating draw us in and fine acting keeps us watching and hoping — against all prior knowledge — that this time Anne and her attic family will escape. They don’t.

The cast stays in character and onstage even during intermission, reading, mending, doing laundry, getting dental work done (one hopes not really — looked painful), and napping, adding to the impression that one is watching history happen.

The audience sits on three sides, with those in the first row actually seeming to be part of Anne’s household prison. Much credit should be given to scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan for creating an abstract, yet realistic, upper room. Beds, clothes, kitchen, sink, tables all speak of lives lived in poverty and fear. The audience is surrounded by barbed wire and wooden beams, harsh reminders of prison and wartime. Lighting by Mary Louise Geiger, costumes by David Kay Mickelsen and sound by Daniel Perelstein all contribute to the play’s somber mood.

Anne Frank was only thirteen when she went into hiding. Annie Fox as Anne offers a spirited performance that makes it clear that in hiding or not, Anne Frank is a lovably complex person, unsure about what to do with her intellect (she dreams of being a journalist) or her budding sexual maturity (early printed editions of the diary omitted her sexual curiosity and her intermittent dislike of her older sister and her mother). Fox’s passionate and volatile Anne at one point shouts “I have a better side.”

She adores her father (a kindly Rick D. Wasserman), shouts at her stressed-out mother (a nervous yet generous Lise Bruneau), stomps around the attic and is often impatient with her older sister (a steadfast Sarah Cuneo). As time passes Anne develops a crush on fellow teen Peter Van Daan (an obligingly polite Yaron Lotan). Lotan’s Peter is as naive as Anne and their stolen moments in the upper room’s attic bring innocent joy to both.

Others in hiding with them are Peter’s parents. His mother cannot face their new reality and clings to her luxurious fur coat (Laura Perrotta convincingly conveys her as a woman on the edge). His father (a secretive Bruce Winant) reveals serious character flaws. The family dentist Mr. Dussel (a fussy, grumpy Lee Wilkof ) also lives with them.

The brave Miep Gies (an open and friendly Amy Fritsche) risks her life and that of her family to smuggle food to the seven in the attic. In addition, it was she who preserved Anne’s diary. Other characters include “Mr. Kraler” (a helpful Tom Woodward) who assists Miep Gies. (“Kraler” is a pseudonym for Victor Kugler whose real name was not published in the original diary.) Paul Bugallo, Randy Merrill and Peter Hargrave play Nazi enforcers, concentration camp guards (they guard us at one point), and nosy neighbors.

Anne herself never knew that her simple diary would make her famous and that millions would love her and mourn her loss. In her diary she wrote, “I finally realized that I must do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that’s what I want! I know I can write …, but it remains to be seen whether I really have talent …”

I think we can safely say “Yes.”

BOTTOM LINE: A fine and moving production of what is now a classic.

[Written by Laura Kennelly]

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