Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

A Deeper, Darker and More Heartbreaking
Anne Frank at the Paper Mill

Also see Bob's review of All My Sons

Shana Dowdeswell and Dana Powers Acheson
The Paper Mill Playhouse production of The Diary of Anne Frank employs Wendy Kesselman's eye-opening revision of the popular prize winning 1955 dramatization by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. The diary, which had been published in 1947 with a foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt, was a publishing phenomenon, deeply penetrating American consciousness with its vivid, revealing, and deeply personal account of the Holocaust. It presented in microcosm a tragedy too vast and barbarous for easy human comprehension.

In 1943, in order to avoid arrest and deportation by the occupying Nazis, the Jewish Frank family, Ann, her parents, Otto and Edith, and her older sister, Margo, went into hiding in a secret annex above Otto's office in Amsterdam. Anne had recently been given a diary for her thirteenth birthday. For the 25 months that the Franks lived in the annex with four other desperate Jews, the introspective and talented Anne kept her diary. Tragically, they were all discovered by the Nazis and deported to the Nazi death camps where all but Anne's father, Otto, perished during the waning days of the Third Reich. Returning to Amsterdam after the Nazis were defeated, Frank was given the diary which had been retrieved by a Dutch friend who had been instrumental in helping the Franks to hide.

With the approval of Otto Frank, the outstanding American novelist Meyer Levin (Compulsion), who had brought the diary to the attention of its American publisher (and reviewed it for the N.Y. Times Book Review) wrote an adaptation for the stage. When producer Kermit Bloomgarden showed the play to the controversial Lillian Hellman, she pronounced Levin's adaptation to be "too Jewish", and convinced Otto Frank to dismiss Levin. Hellman further convinced Frank to hire her Hollywood friends, married and successful screenwriter partners Goodrich and Hackett, to write a more "universal" adaptation. Aside from their screenwriting credit (there were several screenwriters, credited and uncredited, involved) for It's a Wonderful Life, the Hacketts were strictly purveyors of light comedy and musical screenplays, and never wrote any other successful play. The Hacketts closely hewed to the structure and events of Levin's adaptation, removing any mention of Anne's pride in her Jewish heritage and of her fears that her talents would go unrecognized because of hostility to her identity. They emphasized Anne's inspiringly hopeful moments ("... I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."), excluding her darker thoughts. Levin's version was suppressed (Levin's sad story is too long to be detailed here) and not permitted to ever be produced.

A well constructed, moving and spiritually uplifting feel-good play which catered to the need for reassurance and cosseting by its 1950s post-war audience, the Hacketts' adaptation was warmly received. I do not know how well their adaptation would work today. However, it is factually and emotionally dishonest. Along with almost everyone else, I remember eagerly ingesting its pablum in 1955. An example of such is having Otto Frank say, as Nazi soldiers break into the secret annex, that for the past two years, we have lived in fear, now we can live in hope. No matter how long I ruminate on that line, I cannot make any sense of it. Just as bizarrely, when Otto Frank returns to the attic after the war, he tells Miep that Anne was happy in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, happy to be outside in the fresh air. Kesselman provides a haunting, disturbing alternative vision of Anne's last days. There is nothing in the original adaptation to match the power of that image in bringing home the horror of the Holocaust.

We now know that Otto Frank withheld from publication an extensive number of pages from Anne's diary which related to her burgeoning sexuality and the full extent of her sense of alienation from her mother and sister. In 1995, almost 15 years after Otto's death, these pages were incorporated into a "definitive" new addition of the diary.

For the 1997 Broadway revival, new adaptor Wendy Kesselman set out to redress the Hackett's de-Judaization of Anne, and incorporate newly available information on Anne's burgeoning sexuality. This is the version which Paper Mill is presenting. Although this adaptation is not entirely successful, it seriously reduces the phony feel-good aspects that the Hacketts' had introduced, and is to be commended for its heightened realism and power.

I am not certain of every one of Kesselman's revisions, but clearly they are extensive. It is heartening to see a more complex, three -dimensional Anne Frank on the stage. We not only sympathize with her as a victim of the Nazis, but we care about her emotionally confusing, burgeoning adolescence. Now when Peter says that he would deny being Jewish to the world, Anne movingly expresses her determination to carry her identity with pride. Shana Dowdeswell, although only 16, somehow appears too mature for Anne (especially at age 13). However, Dowdeswell is appealing, lively, sympathetic, and believable through all Anne's changing moods and behaviors.

Peter Kybart is a restrained and dignified Otto Frank. It must be extremely difficult for Kybart to bring out turmoil and annoyance, let alone anger, when Otto Frank is written as a plaster saint, but, if Kybart would seek out cracks in the plaster, his Otto would become more dimensional. As it now stands, Otto's lack of emotional affect seems to contribute to his wife's discomfort (actually, an interesting, if unintended dynamic). Isabel Keating has a more dimensional role as Edith Frank. With her every gesture, Keating conveys the frustration of a well intentioned wife and mother trying to cope with difficulty, and a difficult daughter less than successfully. Dana Powers Acheson displays no false notes in the underwritten role of the quiet sister, Margo.

The four others hiding from the Nazis in the secret annex are the van Daan family and a dentist, Mr. Dussel. Under normal circumstances, Mr. and Mrs. van Daan would be well intentioned, decent people. However, forced to endure extreme hardship, their selfish pettiness is exposed. David Wohl brings an appropriate coarseness to the selfish, poorly coping van Daan. In Mrs. van Daan's less troubled moments, Nancy Robinette has an appropriate middle European Gemutlichkeit air. Michael Stahl-David hits all the right notes as their son, Peter. The usually excellent Michael Rupert is miscast as the dentist, Mr. Dussel. A selfish, unappreciative fussbudget, the dapper Rupert delivers a performance against type that mutes the play's humor and is at odds with the text.

As two righteous Christians whose devotion and assistance enable the residents of the annex to survive there, Christa Scott-Reed's Miep displays great warmth and empathy in interesting contrast to Jeff Talbott's taciturn, but equally devoted, Mr. Kraler.

The work of director Carolyn Cantor is uneven. Cantor skillfully employs sound and lighting effects in order to bring home the fearful Nazi presence always hovering just beyond the annex. Cantor also brings irony to the proceedings when she has Anne's diary entry stating that she believes that people are good at heart spoken as a voiceover as the Nazi soldiers drag her off to die.

On the other hand, there is a choppiness and lack of continuity to the proceedings. Some of the blame must fall on Wendy Kesselman's failure to smoothly integrate her added scenes into the fabric of the whole. When Anne speaks of her confused sexual feelings, her words come across as an oration out of tune with the flow of the play. Perhaps, she could be writing in her diary as she speaks. Even better, she could be speaking to Margot in an attempt to have her sister relate to her. Something, anything, please. The scene in which Van Daan "steals" bread is ineffectively staged. And I did miss the poignancy of the (now cut) defense which Mrs. Van Daan offers for him (he's a big man; he needs the bread; he's hungry) as well as other incidents which added dimension to Anne's annex mates.

Set Designer David Korins' annex is nicely built several inches above the stage floor, giving us the feeling of being at the top of the building. There are multiple rows comprised of more than 200 tulips, starting at the lip of the stage and extending under the attic. It would seem that they are there to remind us of the beauty of the life that the Frank's have left or the Amsterdam from which they have been torn. As Amsterdam is under Nazi occupation, rather than being evocative, this touch ends up eliciting distracting questions. The lighting (Kevin Adams) and sound design (Randy Hansen) are both excellent and central to creating a sense of fear and dread.

The Hacketts gave us a feel-good Anne Frank. Wendy Kesselman has adapted and expanded their work to provide something deeper and more meaningful. Aided by the presence of a fully dimensional Anne, the Paper Mill production renders The Diary of Anne Frank more powerful and heartbreaking than ever.

The Diary of Anne Frank continues performances (Evenings: Wed., Thurs.& Sun. 7:30 p.m. Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m. Matinees: Thurs., Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.) through February 26, 2006 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ, 07041; Box Office: 973-376-4343/ online

The Diary of Anne Frank adaptation by Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett; newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman; directed by Carolyn Cantor

Cast (in order of appearance)

Anne Frank……………Shana Dowdeswell
Otto Frank……………………...Peter Kybart
Edith Frank…………………..Isabel Keating
Margot Frank……...Dana Powers Acheson
Miep Gies……………..Christa Scott-Reed
Peter Van Daan……....Michael Stahl-David
Mr. Kraler………………….........Jeff Talbott
Mrs. Van Daan………........Nancy Robinette
Mr. Van Daan………………….....David Wohl
Mr. Dussel…………………Michael Rupert
First Man………………………...Peter Bretz
Second Man…………………….Steve Brady
Third Man………………..Seamus Mulcahy

Photo: Jerry Dalia

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