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The Diary of Anne Frank has been iconic for decades. It has now been revived in Wilmington by the excellent and dynamic Opera House Theatre Company, which has been performing here for over 35 years. Premiering on Broadway in 1955, the play is a dramatization of the personal journal of a Jewish girl, Anne Frank, who spent over two years with her family and four others hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam during WWII. She was 13 when they entered "The Secret Annex" and 15 when they were arrested and sent to Auschwitz, a concentration and extermination camp. Anne died of typhus, not quite 16 years old, in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen just weeks before the camp's liberation by British and American troops. In that time, she had blossomed from a precocious, high-spirited girl to a serious and insightful writer. Dozens of other Jewish children wrote diaries during the war, but Anne's has become the face of young people persecuted in the Holocaust and the entryway for children of her own age to start learning about what happened.
Opera House Theatre Company has done a service by performing this play, partly this is because it was done so successfully. Beyond that, the act of performance itself is important. It brings the message of humanity against the depredations of cruelty and hate. It fulfills the dream of a gifted writer to live on after her death, in this case, after her life was snuffed out. And performing this play serves as a bulwark against Holocaust deniers and other haters (the government of Iran, for example, has a state policy of denying that the Holocaust happened) who for decades have tried to smear the diary as a forgery. It is unassailably authentic, as extensive analysis has conclusively established.
The Opera House performance featured the gifted Reagan Shumate as Anne. Now approximately the same age as Anne was when she wrote her diary, and already with numerous stage and screen credits, Shumate played the role with dramatic coherence and projected her protagonist's shifting feelings effectively. Anne opened up her inmost thoughts in her diary, and in this performance, the viewer had the feeling of knowing who Anne was and of sharing her experiences. Anne's writing, at times dealing with quotidian topics, rose to genuinely poetic outpouring as well. This was carried expressively and at times passionately by the young actor.
Each character in the eight-person ensemble was distinctively and individually portrayed. Otto Frank, Anne's beloved father, played by Robin Dale Robertson, came off as a gentle figure, yet he could shout when needed and a few times showed some fussiness. A wonderful, humanistic man without doubt, but not a saint. Anne's mother, Edith (Paula Davis), loving but at odds with her daughter, presented an effective foil to Anne's ebullience. It was touching to see them connect as a more mature Anne tried to comfort her mother in her fear. Anne's sister, Margo (Mia Gesualdi) – the quiet, "perfect" daughter – opened up to dramatic presence and persuasiveness when her character encountered the serious stresses of life under such cramped, trying conditions.
The parents in the other hiding family, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (James Bowling and Suellen Yates), projected the volatile moods of a sometimes-argumentative but ultimately loving couple. Their son, Peter (Cooper Herrett), was a more diffident, even sullen character who developed unexpected effervescence when love blossomed with Anne. As Mr. Dussel, the last of the hiding party, Jamey Stone perfectly put on the scowl one would expect from his characterization in the diary. Miep Gies, the quietly heroic helper who kept the sheltering Jews alive (and who lived to be 100, dying in 2010), had a warm portrayal with Krista Leigh Rivenbark. She came over well as the caring figure that Gies evidently was.
The set was straightforward and, by being rather shallow, helped emphasize the claustrophobic nature of life in the annex. Lighting served the action well by being largely static and was used to lift dramatic, disturbing moments, such as when bombers were heard coming overhead. The use of music had the effect of coming from another world where the characters could not tread. Having Chopin playing in the scene where Anne and Peter fall in love was effective. At the end of the play, the audience exited to subdued string quartet music, an excellent, even needed touch.
The play itself was a newer adaptation by Wendy Kesselman, which opened on Broadway in 1997. According to the program notes, it "contains a more honest and gritty reflection of Anne's narrative" than the earlier play. Anne actually made two versions of her diary, and the difference between the stage pieces reflect different choices between the texts Anne wrote. This script has the virtue of displaying the individuality and humanity of each of the characters through scenes in which everyone is featured at least once. The viewer understands the dynamics of these people's interactions, their happiness (such as in the Hanukkah scene) and their quarrels, sometimes petty, sometimes weighty. Through Anne, and the strength of the acting here, one met real people in multiple dimensions. Due to the fact that the diary is a series of entries ("letters" addressed to an imagined recipient, Kitty), the show can be and occasionally became episodic. But generally, the flow was sustained, as was, overall, the need to smoothly negotiate the movements of that many characters in the deliberately small space at hand.
Credit for that goes to the excellent, multi-talented director, Holli Saperstein. She is a veteran actress of many productions who also leads her own company, Panache Theatrical Productions. In addition to the stage action, she led the coordination of the music mentioned above. Two scenes included prayers in Hebrew – hardly a typical stage language anywhere outside Israel – which were spoken smoothly and clearly by the cast. Saperstein also penned a note to the audience eloquently discussing the play, its importance in her own life, and its relevance in the tide of hate, including Jew hate, which is unfortunately part of our lives still today.
The end of the play is not uplifting. Otto Frank was the only one of the eight people to survive the camps. He returned to Amsterdam to find that his wife and daughters were dead. In a soliloquy, he recounts this. Anne's famous words, that she believes "people are truly good at heart," end her communication with us. His words end the play: holding her diary, he says, "All that remains." Somewhat fictionalized, but 100% true in spirit. There could not have been a more truthful and meaningful ending.
The artistry of Opera House Theatre Company has done Wilmington, Anne Frank, and people of good will, a genuine service.
The Diary of Anne Frank continues through Sunday, September 18. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.