On the night of fear and terrorism in Paris, I attended a play which reflects on one of the world’s best known, true stories of fear and terrorism. It was fitting to watch a heartfelt production of an event that took place 70 years ago and seems as if it is happening today.
Melrose’s Theatre To Go brings The Diary of Anne Frank to its stage this month, and with it some memorable performances. The classic true story of the Frank family’s ordeal in the upstairs rooms in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation is brought to life by director Michael Molineaux, whose minimalist vision works to evoke the fear and anxiety that the family had to endure during those bleak days during World War II.
This is the story of the world’s most famous diary. Anne is a fifteen year old Jewish girl and aspiring writer, hiding from the Nazis in occupied Amsterdam. When her family’s hiding place (the "Secret Annex") was raided, Anne and her family were separated and imprisoned in concentration camps. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived the Holocaust to eventually see freedom. Anne’s diary, which at its most basic level is a coming-of-age story, was left behind in the Secret Annex but kept safe by a family friend, Miep Gies. After Otto was liberated from concentration camp, Miep gave him the diary.
The small stage was a perfect setting for the living space that was to be the Frank’s only home for several years. The actors had less than eight hundred square feet in which to perform, which helped portray the sense of claustrophobia. Directly in front of the stage was the iconic bookcase, which led to the Secret Annex. It was a constant reminder of how it separated the world of the Franks from the world beyond their door.
The story begins with the sounds of a busy Amsterdam and Mr. Frank, having returned from the concentration camp, discovering Anne’s diary. Soon, we are brought back to their days hiding in the Secret Annex. Anne often writes about her loneliness. She has a tumultuous relationship with the adults in the Secret Annex, particularly her mother, whom she considers to be lacking in love and affection. Another family, the Van Daans, comes to hide with them, as well as a rather prickly man named Mr. Dussel, with whom Anne must share her bedroom. Anne is filled with youthful energy and a rebellious nature. The Van Daans have a son Peter, just slightly older than Anne (brilliantly played by Michael Saracco), who is a bit awkward and standoffish and whom Anne initially dislikes. As Anne matures (aging from thirteen to fifteen during the play), so do her thoughts. from basic emotions to deeper, more profound thoughts about humanity and her own personal nature. The cast in general does well at showing us the emotional rollercoaster of reacting to good news and bad news about the progress of the war (often supplied from their old radio).
It took me a while to warm up to most of the characters, but the slow build-up of their anxieties was well portrayed until the climax when the Nazis finally discover them. The real standout here is seventeen year old Burlington High School junior Laura Frustaci, who superbly gives us an Anne who is filled with frustration, anger hope, love, and humor. She seamlessly flows from one emotion to another, all brilliantly interpreted from the diary entries. When Peter finally kisses her, this heart-fluttering moment had the entire audience giving a collective smile. Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (portrayed by David Ross and Kate Beattie, respectively) were excellent as Peter’s parents, bringing strong characterization to the roles: Mrs. Van Daan, feisty and flirty; Mr. Van Daan, greedy and selfish.
Michael Molineaux’ direction to create the families’ minimalist existence worked very well. Some of the most effective moments resonated from the sound of marching Gestapo boots on the sidewalk outside the Secret Annex, causing every character to hold their collective breaths until the marching faded into the distance. Finally, when the sound of a truck presumably filled with Gestapo police pulls up, the squealing brakes tell us that the dreaded moment has come. The final scene has Mr. Frank reading the last page of Anne’s newly-discovered diary, bringing a chilling conclusion that left me wondering if we will ever see a world that Anne hoped and dreamed so many years ago.