The stage lights dim. The audience awaits actors for the beginning of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s play, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Instead, a woman softly sings “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” the refrain from the now-banned version of the German national anthem. Her quiet feminine voice fades and a strident ugly one replaces it, an angry scolding oration by the Führer. But this isn’t Nazi Germany. It is Amsterdam in Nazi-occupied Holland. The stage lights go up and we finally see where diarist Anne Frank spent the last two years of her short life: the Achterhuis, the Secret Annex in the back of the canal building at 263 Prinsengracht.
The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winning play opened Jan. 22 at the Brüka Theatre. Under the sensitive direction of Holly Natwora, the play follows the lives of the Frank and van Daan families and dentist Alfred Dussel, who sought refuge from extermination — eight Jews aided by Dutch helpers, surviving on ration cards for three.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a study of characters from the observations of a precocious, boisterous thirteen year old on the verge of womanhood, whose pen spares no one, including herself. Trapped in rooms from which they can never leave, Anne, portrayed by firecracker Hannah Davis, sees their plight as an adventure at first. Then reality sinks in as she concludes they’re in a sort of prison with no air, sunshine, trees and, worst of all, no friends. She is frustrated with her parents and has nothing in common with the others, including her studious, introspective sister Margot, played by Natalie Moore. Sixteen-year old Peter van Daan (Jessey Richards) finds her irritating and flees to the privacy of his room with his cat. Even Anne’s mother Edith (Mary Bennett) alternates between annoyance and doting care. But despite the bickering and strife, her father Otto (Bradford Ka’ai’ai) holds everyone together with his pragmatism, calm and hope.
The script is sentimental and drags in places, but is peppered with comedic and tense scenes. The audience chuckles as Anne recounts putting a wet mop in Mr. Dussel’s (Rod Hearn) bed or hiding Hermann van Daan’s (Gary Cremean II) pipe. We anguish over the discovery that Petronella van Daan’s (Evonne Kezios) prizes her fur coat not because of its status symbol, but because her father gave it to her. Outside, air raid sirens and German troops marching remind us of the lethal menace just beyond the door. And the last scene with Otto’s monologue is one of the finest, most poignant pieces of drama I have ever witnessed. We’re talking two-hankies here. But the star of the show is certainly Anna’s complex personality as channeled by Davis. And of course none of “The Diary” would work if it weren’t for her prickly, loveable or impish interactions with this fine ensemble cast.
If you’re expecting a tightly plotted, fast-moving drama in our 21st century, iphone-fueled era of impatience, you’re at the wrong show. Theater tastes have changed since the 1950s when “The Diary of Anne Frank” was first produced. This isn’t the 1997 Wendy Kesselman adaptation. I wondered about the difficulty in staging such a play, where everyone in the audience knows the ending. How does one create conflict and tension when the focus is on characters and it all ends badly? If it were Shakespeare, he would whip out poison, daggers, some swords and periodically bump off characters, ending in a dramatic suicide. But this is real-life drama in the modern world of industrialized, mass-produced death. I posed the question to Director Natwora who said, “The play has to be about hope. Hope is mentioned three times in the last scene.” Indeed, it is the human remedy for senseless genocide that tried to silence a young girl and an entire people.
Natwora’s meticulous attention to detail is impressive, from the 1940s era costumes to the superb recreation of the shabby, cramped quarters in the annex. The stage seems more open than one would expect until the eight actors move around compartments that serve as bedrooms and the tiny common living area. The intimacy of the Brüka Theatre is perfect for a production like “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The audience has the sense of living with them in cramped conditions. Sound and lighting were used to great effect to create a war-torn city ambience, from searchlights to sirens, troop movements and even church bells.
There are many reasons why Brüka Theatre has been named “Best Theatre Company” by The News and Review for eighteen years running. One of them certainly is their choices of stage productions. “The Diary of Anne Frank” is a courageous and timely one. Though it premiered in 1955, Anne Frank’s story speaks across the decades as a contemporary morality tale. Otto Frank tried in vain to immigrate to the United States with Anne and his family. Even with his many business and political connections, he could not obtain visas from the pre-war American bureaucracy that placed insurmountable obstacles on refugees, due to fears of infiltration by spies or saboteurs.
Go see “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Sure it drags in places, but focus on the characters in this real-life tragedy and reflect on what Anne Frank wrote on every single page of her world-famous diary: L’chaim, to life.
What: “The Diary of Anne Frank”
Where: The Bruka Theatre, 17 South Virginia St., Reno
When: Through February 13
By Galen Watson