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The Diary of Anne Frank
by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
New Jewish Theatre
October 12, 2014

Samantha Moyer, Bobby Miller Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Samantha Moyer, Bobby Miller
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

It’s easy to think of history with a degree of detachment. World War II was a long time ago, and to many people nowadays, it’s mostly represented by names and dates in books.  As important as the lessons of history can be, especially with events as world-changing and horrific as what transpired in Nazi Germany and its occupied areas, the study of such events can easily become simply academic or philosophical.  New Jewish Theatre, in opening its new season with a profoundly affecting production of The Diary of Anne Frank, has brought history to life in an immediate, intensely compelling way that serves to remind us that these people are not just names in a book. They were real, and what happened to them is not only important to remember–it’s essential.

Anne Frank’s story is a familiar one, with this play having won a Pulitzer Prize and having been filmed several times for both the big and small screens.  This version, a revision of the orginal play that includes more of Anne’s writings, was performed on Broadway in 1997. This is the first time New Jewish Theatre has produced this play, and this remarkable production is definitely worth the wait. Focusing on young Jewish teenager Anne (Samantha Moyer) and her family–father Otto (Bobby Miller), mother Edith (Amy Loui), and older sister Margot (Taylor Steward)–as they hide from oppressive authorities in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, the play details the struggles of the family as they spend two years living in close quarters in a secret section of Otto Frank’s office building, being aided by sympathetic employees Miep (Stefanie Kluba) and Mr. Kraler (Eric Dean White).  The Franks share their very small space with another family, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Jason Grubbe and Margeau Steinau) and their teenage son, Peter (Leo B. Ramsey), as well as a local dentist, Mr. Dussel (Terry Meddows).  Personality conflicts and a shortage of supplies add to the already tense situation, as everybody waits, hopes and prays for the war to end and the Nazi government to fall so that the Franks and their friends won’t have to hide anymore.

Anyone who knows this story knows how it ends, but the power of this production is in the fact that the suspense is still there.  Even with the inevitability of the conclusion looming, we are left hoping against hope.  The characterizations are so vivid and real, and the staging is immediate and personal, with very little detachment between the audience and the performers.  The incredibly detailed set by Jim Burwinkel creates a believable environment and extends it with little separation from the seating area, allowing us in the audience to feel as if we are in this confined space with the cast, and their sense of confinement is made even more real as a result.  The costumes, designed by Michele Friedman Siler, are also meticulously detailed and period-specific, lending more authenticity to the production along with excellent lighting design by Maureen Berry, sound design by Zoe Sullivan, and properties design by Jenny Smith.  Technically, this is an impressive and immersive production, which adds to the overall drama of the play.

The performances here are very strong all around, with SLU student Samantha Moyer as the bubbly, energetic Anne and veteran performer Bobby Miller as her beloved father Otto forming the emotional center of this production. Their bond is very real and affecting, and their scenes together are among the dramatic highlights. Miller’s last scene is simply devastating.  Loui, as Anne’s concerned mother Edith, and Steward as the more quiet, reflective Margot are also excellent, as are Steinau and Grubbe as the Van Daans.  Meddows brings a lot of sympathy to the nervous Mr. Dussel, and Ramsey is charming as the reserved young Peter, who gradually develops an attraction to Anne. He and Moyer have some very sweet moments together, displaying good chemistry as the smitten young teens.  Kluba and White lend strong support as allies Miep and Mr. Kraler, as well.  This is a top-notch cast, portraying the characters as eminently relatable, bringing an immediate sense of reality and poignancy to the proceedings. We hope the best for these characters as they struggle to stay alive and cling to their hopes and their memories, and as they huddle around the radio listening to news and hoping for freedom. Getting to know these people adds to the inevitable sense of tragedy.

Artistic Director Kathleen Sitzer notes in the program that we will soon be in a time in which the Holocaust will no longer be in living memory, as the last survivors are currently in advanced age.  Soon, nobody will remember this story first-hand, and it falls to books and plays like this to remind us of the horrific reality of the Holocaust and the millions of real people who were affected by it.  Kudos to all involved in this outstanding production for reminding us that these are not just names on a page. Anne Frank, her family and friends were real people facing a real tragedy that needs to be remembered.  This production effectively emphasizes the real human lives involved, and the remarkable young girl at the center at it all who had the heart, courage and wisdom to write down her experiences for generations to remember.  It’s an important production, impressively staged and remarkably realized.

Cast of The Diary of Anne Frank Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Cast of The Diary of Anne Frank
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

 

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