Through Sun 11/18
The Holocaust was a horrific series of experiences. As the years go by, and the survivors of the atrocities die off, leaving no one to attest to the actual pain and suffering, those who want to make sure that such experiences do not repeat themselves turn to tangible objects and written accounts.
Probably no record of the trauma has gained more attention than the diary of a German Jewish girl, Anne Frank, whose family went into hiding in Amsterdam and came within months of being survivors of the onslaught.
Her words have lived on through the publication of her recounting of time spent in the upper floor of her father’s warehouse and office building in play scripts, textual analysis of her writing and classes which use her diary as a text.
Anne Frank has, in fact, become cottage industry. The site where she was sequestered offers daily tours. The site’s bookstore sells everything from copies of the diary, coloring books, Holocaust drawings and art work, commemorative pens and pencils, and yellow cloth Jewish stars, like the ones Jews were forced to wear. Anne Frank is one of the most searched topics for research projects and school reports.
Anne’s symbolic power has been memorialized with streets, schools and parks named after her. There are also tasteless Halloween costumes and anti-Semitic taunts of soccer fans who draw on her identity. Several weeks ago in Lazio, Italy, soccer fans plastered the Stadio Olimpico with stickers of Anne Frank wearing a jersey of city rival Roma, whom the Lazio supporters consider to be socialist and “Jews.” Lazio’s anti-Semitic slurs in the past have included a banner telling Roma supporters: “Auschwitz Is Your Homeland; The Ovens Are Your Homes.” The actions drew condemnation from the soccer league, the nation’s premier and the head of the European Parliament.
In a visit to Rome’s main synagogue, the premiere said the club would intensify its efforts to combat racism and anti-Semitism and organize an annual trip to the Auschwitz concentration camp with some 200 young Lazio fans to “educate them not to forget.”
A passage from Anne Frank’s diary was read before Italian league matches as part of a number of initiatives to condemn the acts of anti-Semitism earlier this week by Lazio fans and to keep alive memories of the Holocaust. The diary passage reads: “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too, I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”
Even positive attempts to use Anne’s identity have backfired. Deutsche Bahn (railroad) recently announced that it was planning to name a new high-speed train after her. Supposedly this was done to commemorate Anne’s train ride to the concentration camp in which she died at age 14. The idea, which the railroad thought was an honor, was met with negative outcries and then withdrawn.
The play The Diary of Anne Frank is a stage adaptation of the book The Diary of a Young Girl. It is generally believed that the diary was found by Anne’s father Otto when he returned to the building where the family hid for slightly over two years, after he was released from captivity. He was the only one of the hiding place’s population to survive. In fact, the handwritten book of notes was hidden by a family friend and given to him upon his return. Mr. Frank published it in 1947.
A version of the play, produced on Broadway in 1955, was created by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Though it won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize and garnered strong positive reviews, it was often accused of being too sentimental and void of the Jewish part of the experience.
In 1997, a revision of the script was done by Wendy Kesselman. It more closely resembles the diary with some of the conflicts, growing pains and “Yiddishkite” more clearly presented. It is this script that director Laura Kepley is using for the Cleveland Play House’s present staging.
The CPH production is generally well-thought-out and -crafted. Kepley has nicely paced the show, has been careful to honor the Jewish aspects of the story, and brought attention to the part played by the brave gentile men and women of Holland who risked their lives to save their Jewish countrymen.
The cast is strong. Special recognition to Rick D. Wasserman as the compassionate Otto Frank, Yaron Lotan as Peter Van Daan, who emerges from a shy, almost reclusive young man into Anne’s “beau,” Laura Perrotta as the self-centered Mrs. Van Daan, and Lise Bruneau as the stoic Edith Frank, Anne’s put-upon mother.
For the play to work on its highest level, the audience must have a love affair with Anne. They must feel compassion for the youngster who grows and matures before their eyes. Annie Fox does not totally gain that affection. She is too old and lacks the teenage emotional undercurrent to garner the needed empathy. This is not a bad performance; it just doesn’t hit the heart as it should.
The sound effects: the sound of the carillon, the voices of children playing in the street, the tramp of marching feet, the singing of German troops, a boat whistle form the canal, add to the emotional power of the piece.
The set, though impressive, is problematic. Those who have visited the actual site where the Franks, Van Daans and Mr. Dussel hid know it was much smaller and cramped than the massive CPH set. The construction may mislead some viewers to believe that the inhabitants were not cramped, living on top of each other. In fact, they were in a claustrophobic place.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: The Diary of Anne Frank is a powerful and important play. Especially in this country, when racist, religious and national attacks are condoned by the country’s leader, it is imperative that the message of “never again” be bannered. Cleveland Play House has done a great service by staging the message of a young girl who was destroyed by bigots and haters. This is a must-see production.
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through Sun 11/19 at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to clevelandplayhouse.com.