It’s difficult with a play like this to separate the effectiveness of a production from one’s emotional reaction to the story being told. It’s Anne Frank- dark and devastating, punctuated by heartbreaking moments of lightness, romance and even joy. Anne’s words, structured by playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett (adapted by Wendy Kesselman), are so moving on their own that there’s only so much a team of theatre artists can do to help or hinder their impact.
Casting is really the only key to the ultimate quality of a production of The Diary of Anne Frank– how well does the chosen Anne (usually an adult) capture the heroine’s youthful energy without going over the top? Does her maturation feel organic? Does she bring to life the indefinable sparkle Anne’s diary reveals of its writer? Ingénue-du-jour Sara Farb is serviceable in the part but her performance is a bit too presentational considering the bluntness and vulnerability revealed in the text. Interestingly, the production’s most stirring performances actually seem to come from the characters who speak less- quiet and kind Otto Frank (Joseph Ziegler in the most perfect piece of casting this season), practical and patient Margot (Shannon Taylor, an MVP yet again) and Yanna McIntosh as Mrs. van Daan whose line “hold on to me” hit my heart hardest of any line in the play.
Director Jillian Keiley approaches the production as though anticipating the crowds of field trippers who filled the audience in the spring and will again in the fall. We begin with what feels like a talkback- the full (surprisingly large) cast in a line downstage, speaking directly to the audience with personal stories and information about Anne, the war and the production we’re about to see. There are many standout moments from the personal reflections but perhaps the most valuable comes from Tyrone Savage whom this introductory device places shoulder to shoulder with every other human being on the stage as he tells us with an intriguing tone of guilt and actorly empathy “I play the SS Officer”. It’s a warning sign right off the bat-that horrific ending will come barreling towards the Franks no matter how hard you wish it away- but it’s also a strangely startling reminder that the villains here aren’t anything bigger than fellow people.
With designer Bretta Gerecke, Keiley presents a monotone canvas for Anne’s imagination, the brown and tan tones of the costumes blending perfectly with the convertible set, allowing characters to hide in plain sight. There’s a smart simplicity here, a rightful focus on Anne and the words she left us with.