Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires
Also see Fred's review of Rags
My only previous experience with The Diary of Anne Frank onstage was seeing a superlative Broadway revival in 1997 that starred a radiant Natalie Portman as Anne and featured stellar supporting performances by Linda Lavin and George Hearn. The Playhouse on Park production has a great deal to offer, as well, especially the fact that the audience is just a few feet away from the actors throughout. This intimacy adds to the power of its staging and creates a claustrophobic environment, in which all the characters seem to be right on top of each other. The constant threat of the Nazis is palpable, with every noise sending a jolt through the audience.
One truly becomes attached to every character in the play, but above all, there is Isabelle Barbier in the title role. This actress, besides looking very much like the real Anne Frank we've seen in old photographs, is not afraid of offering a wide range of feelings and acting choices, rendering the character sympathetic, annoying, appropriately childlike, and, ultimately, endearing. Barbier's performance is very special.
But this Diary of Anne Frank offers a wide array of assets, not the least being the excellent acting by the entire cast. Frank van Putten is just about perfect as Anne's father Otto, bringing a lot of warmth to the role, as well as a solid stature. Joni Weisfeld is enormously touching as his wife Edith, and Ruthy Froch is a delight as Anne's sister Margot. The four performers genuinely feel like a real family.
Lisa Bostnar shines as Mrs. Van Daan, with the scene in which she fights with her husband about surrendering her fur coat being especially striking. Mr. Van Daan is more than capably embodied by Allen Lewis Rickman and there is a certain sadness and desperation about him that can pierce your heart. As their son Peter, Alex Rafala is absolutely ideal and, like Isabelle Barbier's Anne, he seems to undergo a real change during the course of the play, with the two young performers bringing a welcome sense of romance to the show.
In other roles, Jonathan Mesisca is quite good as the dentist Albert Dussel, and Michael Enright and Elizabeth Simmons are heartbreaking as Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, two of Otto Frank's employees who agree to hide everyone in an annex above the office and bring them food and supplies, even with the threat of the Nazis breathing down their necks. Thanks to the acting of this terrific group of performers and the terrifying atmosphere that director Ezra Barnes creates in the show, an audience member can truly feel like it is World War II onstage.
The Diary of Anne Frank is almost scarily relevant to our current times, and that feeling makes this play much more than just a frightening piece of history. The production seems authentic, thanks to the period perfect costumes by Kate Bunce and Christopher Bell's incisive lighting design, with everything unfolding on David Lewis' appropriately crowded set. The Diary of Anne Frank at Playhouse on Park is a real triumph for Isabelle Barbier as Anne and one can see a bright future for this young actress. But just about all of the elements of this show come together extremely well, providing an especially memorable and heart-clenching evening of theatre.
The Diary of Anne Frank continues at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford CT through November 19, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit www.playhouseonpark.org or call the box office at 860-523-5900.