Hale Centre Theatre opened “The Diary of Anne Frank”at their theatre in the round last night. The story of dark yesterdays that defined how we understand a specific segment of World War II horror received the Best Play Tony in 1956 and was revived on Broadway in 1997 with Natalie Portman as Anne. Told through the compassionate idealistic pen of a teenage Jewish girl, the novel adapted onto the stage was hauntingly optimistic. Reinvigorated with previously omitted diary entries–the version Hale presented–it shimmers.
Much like it is good to share and revisit details with siblings about the funeral of a beloved aunt or the tragic accident of a cousin, re-witnessing the personal details of our painful collective past can also be good for the soul. Hale Center Theatre’s “Diary of Anne Frank” is that kind of good.
Through sepia toned photographs projected onto the theatre walls and scratchy recordings of German propaganda that originally clouded the 1940s radio airwaves, Hale began transporting the audience to the Amsterdam warehouse annex hideaway that the Franks attempted to call a makeshift home in the final years of WWII.
It was inescapable, affecting theatre. Within in the cramped confines of a purposely crowded set, Anne (Sarah Pansing) journeyed from unexpected exuberance–almost hyperactivity–to a woeful “songbird whose wings have been ripped out” in the course of two hours.
This production is the Diary ‘unwrapped,’ as James Lapine, who directed the play’s revival on Broadway a decade ago, said last year. Not only have originally omitted excerpts re-appeared, but they’ve permitted a more ebullient almost contemporary Anne to emerge. She had written about angst-filled tensions with her mother, she had journal entries about coming into her own sexuality; we just hadn’t read or seen it before this adaptation.
Beneath the period lighting fixtures and hand-stitched quilts at Hale the very capable cast of Frank and Van Daan families soldiered on in hiding in occupied Amsterdam. A very sober but loving Otto (Rob Stuart), Anne’s father, accepted if not encouraged her impish attitude that so irritated the others. Love interest Peter (Nicholas Gunnell) played particularly well the self-conscious, puberty-fueled and twitter-pated role opposite Anne. His discomfort was as believable as his masked adoration for her. Anne’s mother’s (Bonnie Beus Romney) distress, over the enormity of the family’s predicament and about her relationship with Anne, was equally palpable.
The cast best bonded in the Second Act scene where they each articulated their greatest post-war desires with pure simplicity: The beach. A dance. A movie. Cream cakes or real coffee. Immediately thereafter, as if the bare hopes might be all they’d ever need, a peaceful warmth and unity filled the theatre when the family joined hands with one another to sing a Hanukkah melody.
The creative team at Hale, headed by Director M. Seth Reines, exercised painfully effective color restraint throughout the show. Costumes and set pieces were largely drab with neutral hues. As a result it was much tougher to shake off the blood red gels that bathed the theatre as air raid sirens screeched, or the pulsing cold blue light that vibrated with the rapid fire machine gun sound effects. Most cruel was the vibrant irony of Anne’s lovely pink date night sweater and the startling glisten of ruby strawberries just days before their hidden lifestyle ended.
We didn’t just watch the claustrophobic ordeal at Hale, we walked an anxious mile in the Frank family’s shoes, the very footwear that they themselves could not use for fear of heels clacking on floorboards and giving their hidden existence away. Like witnessing the sickening mound of discarded loafers at Washington D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, we shared the bittersweet question of whether Anne would know a first kiss in her covertly-acquired, secondhand, red pumps.
The sad reality of last night’s filled-in Anne Frank history is that it meant living the probable death of people who had crept into our bones, seeped into our hearts. Because of Anne’s ‘new’ anecdotes and less-reserved admissions, responses to her were more lively and unfiltered, too. Rather than the Holocaust robbing a faceless, historical race, it killed a bigger chunk of each of us. Right here in the red velvet seats at Hale, as it should be with living a slice of history too horrific to risk repeating, a segment of our own hearts stopped beating.