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Chicago by John Olson

The Diary of Anne Frank
Steppenwolf Theatre Company

The Diary of Anne Frank
Claire Elizabeth Saxe and
Mark Buenning

The program notes acknowledge how The Diary of Anne Frank might be an unexpected choice for Steppenwolf, a theatre company better known for producing new and frequently edgy works than mainstream standards. The company's explanation for this selection is that the piece was originally proposed for their "Steppenwolf for Young Adults" series but was judged important enough to share with its subscription audiences instead. Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey also notes the play's "rich opportunity for ensemble acting." All of this is true enough, but this production, directed by Tina Landau, makes a case for recognizing it as one of the important plays of 20th century American theater.

Is this play underestimated because audiences believe themselves to know it too well from the 1950s productions on Broadway and film? Does the indisputable importance of the subject matter the Nazi extermination of the Jews overshadow any honest evaluation of its literary qualities? The early 21st century may be just the right time for a consideration of that last question. As the last of the Holocaust survivors pass on and the genocide is experienced through history books and literature rather than first-person accounts, perhaps the time has come in which examples of Holocaust-themed literature can be evaluated for their own ability to communicate its horrors and find meaning in the experiences of victims and survivors.

For this production, Steppenwolf and director Tina Landau have turned to Wendy Kesselman's 1997 revision of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's 1955 play. Kesselman's version made use of some of Anne Frank's writings that had been omitted from the earliest published versions of the diary, and is reportedly a less sentimental version. By dialing up some of the character flaws in the Franks and softening the quirks of fellow fugitives Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan and Mr. Dussel, the humanity of the eight Jews hiding in Amsterdam for two years becomes clearer. In so many scenes, particularly the early scenes in act one, the events and conflicts are as recognizable as those in many a sitcom or TV drama. That the families are trapped in such a close-quarter hiding place serves to increase and hasten the tension that might eventually occur if they were neighbors in a duplex like the one in which I grew up. The sensitive and low-keyed performances of Ms. Landau's cast together with the finely detailed script make the tragedy of their eventual deaths, described to the audience in an epilogue by Anne's father - the only one of the eight to survive - even more vivid.

In the scenic design by Richard Hoover, the rooms of the hiding places are taped-off areas of the stage. These areas are furnished with realistic period props, but have no flats or other suggestions of walls. This choice sacrifices the sense of confinement and claustrophobia that a more realistic set might offer, but together with Scott Zielinski's lighting design which shifts focus from the group to individuals as needed, it keeps our attention squarely on the characters. The production design creates a literal limbo that is a perfect metaphor for the figurative limbo in which the eight fugitives lived for two years not exactly captivity but neither was it freedom. The terrors of the outside world are depicted only aurally, through the sounds of Nazi sirens and death trains (in the sound design of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen), but they are frighteningly real even as the visual design is mostly suggestive.

Steppenwolf ensemble members are perfectly cast in the adult male roles. Yasen Peyankov, who normally makes a delicious villain, is a saintly yet believable Otto Frank. Francis Guinan deftly creates the falling apart of the gregarious Mr. Van Daan, and Alan Wilder has a wry take on the dentist played comically by Ed Wynn in the 1959 film. Robert Breuler has a cameo as Mr. Kraler, one of the protectors. Along with ensemble member Mariann Mayberry as Miep Gies, the families' main contact with the outside world, they give fine performances in smaller roles.

Gail Shapiro as Mrs. Frank shows the heartbreak caused by Anne's resentment of her, while Kathy Scambiatterra is a loving and protective Mrs. Van Daan. Anne's contemporaries are believably refreshing alternatives to the young stars of the 1959 film. Carolyn Faye Kramer is made to look as bookish and shy as sister Margot in her photographs, while Mark Buenning gives a wholesome and awkward persona to Peter Van Daan that is a far cry from the casting of the film's teen idol Richard Beymer. Peter is not Anne's love interest, but gradually becomes a soul mate. Kesselman's adaptation even shows that Anne is experiencing some adolescent same-sex attraction.

Landau has a jewel of an Anne in Claire Elizabeth Saxe, a Chicago area high school senior whose acting seems effortless and is wholly un-self-conscious. As Anne, she is energetic, driven, optimistic and entirely able to carry the show in the midst such seasoned professionals. Like the other cast members' portrayals, her Anne is a recognizable person. She's the smart girl who does well in school and is unafraid to let you know it. The nuance and balance of attractive and less-attractive attributes in her character ensures that she's not the only character who earns our attention and sympathy so we feel the tragedy of all eight captives in roughly equal measure. Steppenwolf was so correct in finding The Diary of Anne Frank to be more than high-quality kid lit.

The Diary of Anne Frank is performed Tuesday through Sunday through June 10 at 7:30 p.m. (no Sunday evening performances on May 20, 27, June 3 and 10), with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m., Wednesday matinees on May 23, 30, and June 6 at 2:00 p.m. Tickets available at the Box Office, 1650 N. Halsted, by phone at 312-335-1650 or online at www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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