The Diary of Anne Frank – Theatre Review: Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Center Theater, Phoenix

She’s often thought of as the little Dutch girl. As a result of her diary, she may even be considered the world’s most famous Dutch diarist. But Anne Frank was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929. Because of the rise of the Nazis during the thirties, the persecution of the German Jews, and the timing of a business opportunity in Amsterdam, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, moved the family across the border and settled in The Netherlands, more commonly referred to as Holland. Though she grew up living and learning the Dutch culture and speaking its language, Anne Frank remained a German national until 1941 when, after the Nazis had gained full control, she and her family became stateless.

Another interesting thing about Anne Frank is her diary, which wasn’t a diary at all but an autograph book. As seen in a store window, attracted by the look of its red and white checked cloth for a cover and a lock at the front to keep things secret from others, Anne’s father bought the empty pages of the autograph book for his daughter on her thirteenth birthday, June 12, 1942. It would be just a matter of weeks, July 6 of the same year, when Otto Frank would be forced to move his family into hiding. In her diary, Anne would call it Het Achterhuis, which literally means The House Behind, but became known as The Secret Annex, the additional part at the back of the tall, three-story building that could only be entered by an entry hidden by a bookcase. And it’s there where they stayed, hidden away until 1944 when their presence was discovered. Only Otto Frank would survive.

The thing about The Diary of Anne Frank is that we all know the outcome, particularly in the US where the Broadway play won the Pulitzer in 1955, followed by Shelley Winters’ Academy Award winning performance in the 1959 film of the same name. The book even became part of the American school curriculum for study. And it’s that knowledge of what is going to happen and how soon it will occur that hangs like an invisible dark cloud over everything and everyone from the moment the play begins.

In the new Arizona Theatre Company production, now in performance at Herberger Theater Center until June 3, that dark cloud becomes a literal part of Bill Clarke’s scenic design. Backed by Dan Roach’s sound – a loud, metallic crank, screeching and turning into place – the backdrop to the Frank’s attic hiding place reduces in size, scene by scene, slowly blocking the light of the outside world as if everything is closing in on them, eventually turning their existence into one of total darkness.

The play was first produced in 1955, written by husband and wife screenwriting team, Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett. As with the original publication of the book, where at the request of Otto Frank, certain elements of Anne’s character, her secret desires, her negative feelings towards her mother, and a descriptive exploration of her sexual awakenings, were either downplayed or removed, the play did the same. But a revision in 1995 by playwright Wendy Kesselman restored much of Anne’s darker approach, including the overtly Jewish writings of Anne’s diary. It won’t spoil things if none of this was known before entering the theatre, but once you’re aware of the background, the appreciation of what you’re seeing in this well-cast, exemplary ATC production is enhanced further.

The wooden beamed, multi-layered set indicating the various areas of the annex appears more spacious than the real tall and skinny achterhuis presumably was. Considering how cramped conditions were for both the family and others clumped together for two years, there’s little wonder that disagreements and full-blown arguments would occur.

Part of the problem was Anne herself, who at such a young age and with such cooped-up, teenage energy, often came across as obnoxious and bratty. She is seen inconveniencing others by writing her diary on the floor while those around her have to step over in order to get anywhere. “I seem to irritate everyone around here,” Anne (Anna Lentz) states to the dentist, Mr. Dussel (Michael Santo), also in hiding. While in reality Lentz is considerably older than the thirteen to fifteen year-old Anne, with giggles, laughs, a general excitability, and an overall ebullient manner befitting of a girl in her early to mid-teens, her Anne Frank convinces. She’s likable and – no doubt because of knowing what fate will soon befall her – your sympathies can’t help but fall on her side, regardless of her youthful annoyances.

In addition to the sound design of soldiers marching and singing outside, you’ll also hear water and seagulls, which may seem odd considering that the house where the family hid was inland. But Amsterdam is a city made of about 90 small, floating islands held together by more than a thousand bridges. For years, massive polders have held those islands aloft, which is why you can view all aspects of the city from the point of a view of a canal. The family hiding place was in a house on Prinsengracht, meaning Prince’s Canal, its front door just a few yards from the water’s edge. If you go, you’ll notice there are seagulls everywhere.

Wisely, despite the location and the mix of European accents involved, the actors retain their American voice. The BBC radio broadcasts may have that London delivery, and Otto (Steve Hendrickson) and his wife Edith Frank (Naama Potok) would presumably have retained their German accents when speaking Dutch, but when the players are together in that attic, there are no differences in sound. Interestingly, while the players pronounce Anne’s name as it would in The Netherlands, her sister Margot (Devon Prokopek, who with glasses and wig is a dead-ringer for the real Margot) has her name fully pronounced. It may seem like a nit-pick, but with a company whose reputation is on the details (as with the sound of those seagulls) and its high-production values, it’s curious that the ‘T,’ silent in Dutch, would here be pronounced. It actually sounds strangely clumsy. And, as a historic point of interest not mentioned in the play, like Anne, Margot wrote her own diary in the annex, but it was never found.

Director David Ira Goldstein creates a sense of urgency throughout that, if memory serves, was largely absent on previous Anne Frank productions. Part of this has to do with Kesselman’s update which appears to focus in on elements that stirs emotions previously untapped by the play’s original adaptation, particularly at the conclusion.

There’s a new, closing scene where Anne’s father (Steve Hendrickson) returns to the empty annex, and its inclusion makes all the difference. It acts both as an epilogue, allowing us to know in detail the fates of all, while delivering the full emotional impact of a father’s feelings, one who has lost everything. You knew from the play’s outset what you were in for, and no doubt you were aware how watching a play about eight people in hiding would affect you. But when Hendrickson clutches Anne’s book, you can’t possibly be prepared for that lingering feeling that refuses to go after having witnessed a man break down in the way Hendrickson does, a victim of the world’s loss of humanity. It’s a harrowing conclusion.

ATC’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank continues at Herberger Center Theater until June 3

Pictures Courtesy of Tim Fuller

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