One thing I’ve learned from many years of reviewing theater in the Kansas City area is that KC audiences are generally very enthusiastic. It’s rare to view a show that doesn’t get immediate resounding applause, and most performances earn standing ovations.
But, after the closing lines (uttered by Lenny Wolpe as Otto Frank) at opening night of The Diary of Anne Frank at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, there was no applause. Instead, there was a stunned silence.
It took a good several minutes before audience members had collected themselves enough to be able to applaud. The performance was that powerful. And Anne’s words, echoing through time to remind us that there really were (and still are) monsters on this Earth who terrorize the vulnerable and the dispossessed, are that compelling.
Like so many youngsters, I first read The Diary while in grade school and identified strongly with Anne. She was not a saint, but a headstrong young woman who fought bitterly with her mother, and worshipped her father. Like me, she was an aspiring writer. Otto Frank was still alive at that time, and I wrote to him in care of Doubleday, then the U.S. publisher of the Diary. To my amazement, he wrote back to me from Switzerland where he lived with his second wife, Elfriede, answering my questions about the family’s life in hiding, Anne’s ambition to be a writer, and even his own personal religious beliefs.
The tone of Otto Frank’s letter was fatherly, and “fatherly” is precisely the predominant characteristic of Wolpe’s portrayal of Otto Frank. His air of gravity throughout the production (because Otto obviously felt responsible for the lives of all those in hiding with him) was balanced with his lighthearted attempts to defuse tense situations caused by eight unique (and often quirky) individuals living right on top of each other, with no privacy from the others’ prying eyes.
As riveting as Wolpe’s performance was, the shining star of the production was undoubtedly Rachel Shapiro as Anne Frank. By turns she is vivacious and chatty to the point of obnoxiousness, moody and sullen, and thoughtful and empathetic. In short, she is a teenaged girl–and one who is caught in an extraordinary situation way beyond her control. At night she screams with nightmares–nightmares that don’t dissipate in the daylight, because the monsters are still in the city, just outside the windows, where the curtains can never be drawn apart.
Victor Raider-Wexler and Merle Moores (as Mr. and Mrs. van Daan) deliver first-rate performances as the bickering, idiosyncratic pair of individuals who obviously care very deeply about each other, under the surface. Daniel Beeman plays their son (and Anne’s love interest), Peter van Daan, with the perfect blend of shy, gawky male adolescent awkwardness, and touching tenderness towards Anne.
Peggy Friesen is superb as Edith Frank, Anne’s long-suffering mother, who not only has to put up with living in nearly intolerable conditions in the hiding place and the fear of being discovered, but also with the constant rejection of her younger daughter, who proclaims loudly (and often) that she does not love her.
Shanna Jones and Andy Perkins play the Christian employees in Otto Frank’s office who not only assist the cooped-up residents of the Secret Annex with food and clothing, but who also help keep up morale by trying to deliver good news (as well as library books and film star magazines for Anne) during their visits. Both Jones and Perkins give admirable performances.
Martin S. Buchanan is superb as the fussbudget dentist, Mr. Dussel, who feels that sharing a room with Anne is pure torture (Anne feels the same way about him), and Nicole Marie Green as Anne’s older sister, Margot, stays true to the way Anne portrayed her sibling in the Diary–quiet and studious–the “good girl” of the family.
Marissa Wolf (in her local directorial debut) has elicited an amazing performance from every member of the cast, and it will be interesting to see what she tries her hand at next.
The set design (by Maya Linke) is minimalist and stark–it mainly consists of wood staircases leading to a few separate floors in the Secret Annex. It’s very true to the design of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (which I’ve visited), but there are a few seats in the front row, left-hand side of the theater, where there is almost no view of any action taking place on the first floor of the Secret Annex, because a stair railing blocks it. (Fortunately, I was able to move at Intermission.)
Throughout the run of the show, KC Rep hosts Anne Frank: A History for Today, a traveling exhibit on loan from The Anne Frank Center USA, in the lobby of the newly-redesigned Spencer Theater. This pictorial exhibit is well worth viewing, especially in conjunction with seeing the show.
Eric Rosen, artistic director of KC Rep, was inspired by the shocking, hate-fueled gun violence that erupted at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City on April 13, 2014, to revive The Diary of Anne Frank for Kansas City audiences. Yes, the story is familiar (Anne’s dream of going on living after her death via her writing came true, in a more profound way than she could ever have imagined), but the fact that hate-based crimes are still occurring today all over the world (especially with the massive migration of Syrian refugees to the European Union) shows the need to bring this story over and over again to the forefront of peoples’ consciousness.
KC Rep’s performance of The Diary of Anne Frank bears witness to man’s inhumanity to man in such an engaging and moving way that every member of the audience seemed to be holding their breath on opening night, just after Wolpe (as Otto Frank) intones somberly how each member of his family (and the others in the hiding place) died at the hands of the Nazis, and then picks up Anne’s diary from the floor, saying, “All that remains.”
THE FINE PRINT
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through Sunday, February 21, 2016 at the Spencer Theatre, KC Rep. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.