One could only imagine the horror, the terror and the heartbreak experienced by those who suffered and perished during the Holocaust. We are reminded of those atrocities through personal accounts, historical documentation, images and footage contained in Holocaust museums and other venues.
We also have artifacts such as a diary from a young Jewish girl from Amsterdam named Anne Frank who described in vivid detail the ordeal of spending nearly two years hiding in small upper rooms of the annex at the back of her father’s company building with eight people—three other family members, another family of three and later a stranger—hoping and expecting that they will be liberated from the Nazi takeover of Holland.
That diary, which was published as Diary of a Young Girl but later known simply as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” became a book by Wendy Kesselman and was adapted into a play by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, premiering on Broadway in October 1955.
Fortunately, this play is now being presented at the Olney Theatre Center, and as such, is one of the most gripping dramatic plays I’ve seen in at least ten years. Director Derek Goldman (“Grounded“) and an exceptional cast and skilled technical crew bring this diary to life.
This is a taut and poignant drama with all the moving parts completely in sync, and through the actors’ superb performances under Mr. Goldman’s direction and Misha Kachman’s outstanding set, it seems so real.
Adding to the authenticity is Zach Blane’s effective lighting design. Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design includes sound effects of sirens blaring outside, the chants from Hitler and his followers, and reports from the radio. Also, costume designer David Burdick’s period attire hits the mark.
Olney’s black box theatre that is the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab offers the audience a degree of intimacy not found in many other venues. The aisle running through the center of the audience stands as the stairway linking the outside danger on the streets below to the secret annex space above.
It’s July 6, 1942 in Amsterdam. Hitler’s forces have taken over the city. The Frank family—Otto, Edith, Anne, 13, and her older sister Margot—trudge up the stairs first led by Mr. Kraler, an employee of Otto Frank’s business, the one who is providing the sanctuary.
The Franks are followed by the arrival of Peter van Daan the teenage son of Otto’s business partner. Then Mr. van Daan shows up with his wife and the seven are assembled. All removed their outer clothing soaked from the rain with each wearing a yellow Star of David identifying them as Jews.
Miep Gies, also an employee, and Mr. Kraler will deliver food daily to the group.
Small makeshift bedrooms are assigned. Otto barks out the rules. While workmen spend the day below, no noise can be made until 6 p.m. Shoes must be off, no coughing, no use of water, no flushing toilets. Their very lives depend on not being discovered.
Miep brings another member to the group who needs to hide out—a dentist named Mr. Dussel who is allergic to Peter’s cat and shares a tiny bedroom with Anne.
Though we know the sorrowful ending, we are able to watch and listen to the hopes and dreams of these individuals as the months go by unaware of their fate and how interactions among family members and between the others in the annex are affected by their hiding out in such close quarters. Nerves get frayed. Yet some relationships even tighten. Food is shared but one of the people is caught cheating.
They carry on as one big family, even celebrating Chanukah with Anne doling out improvised gifts to her family. However, along the way, we learn that their secret may have been compromised.
When Miep runs up the stairs to announce Normandy has been invaded and liberation may be near, the occupants all rejoice and celebrate. By contrast, not long later, that suspected betrayal was realized when two Nazi storm troopers barged in, clicked their heels, and without anyone saying a word, the occupants raised their hands and followed the uniformed troopers down the stairs in an absolutely chilling scene.
As stated earlier, the performances by the actors are high quality. Playing the role of the perky and optimistic Anne Frank, Carolyn Faye Kramer is phenomenal. She is the focus of the play, of course, but her relationships with other members of her family and the van Daan family provide much of the drama and dialogue.
Anne is at one time jealous of her older sister Margot, played by Dani Stoller, but then grows closer during their period of hiding. Inevitably, she develops an attraction for the reserved Peter van Daan (Alex Alferov), a slightly older teenager, who lacks self-confidence and questions his Judaism.
…an exceptional cast and skilled technical crew bring this diary to life
Brigid Cleary as Anne and Margot’s mother Edith is a standout. Edith outwardly worries about the fate of the family more than anyone and that concern is evident throughout. Ms. Cleary conveys these emotions realistically in her dialogue and movements on the stage.
Also very strong is Olney veteran Paul Morella as Otto. He is the leader of the group and tries to keep it all together. Mr. Morella gives an incredibly moving epilogue whereby he explains how Otto was the sole survivor; everybody including Anne died when they were in various concentration camps. He delivers this soliloquy with unbridled emotion—eyes tearing, lips quivering and voice shaking.
As the van Daan parents who are involved in more of the conflicts, Eric Hissom and Susan Rome portray their roles well. Their scene in which Mr. van Daan insists that his wife relinquish the fur coat her father gave her because they are in dire need of money and her reluctance to do so is potent.
Rounding out the cast are Michael Russotto as Mr. Dussel, Kimberly Schraf as Miep Gies, and Edward Christian as Mr. Kraler.
Anne’s final words on the stage represent her final entry in the diary dated July 15, 1944:
“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
This, in essence, sums up the positive spirit of Anne Frank that is communicated so adeptly in this exceptionally well-directed and performed play. It should not be missed.
Running Time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through October 23 at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, Olney Theatre Center in Olney, MD 20832. For more information, visit online.