The gods of casting bestowed half a blessing on the St. Bart's Players' production of Goodrich and Hackett's The Diary of Anne Frank. Thankfully, it was the women of the cast who were uniformly excellent, which gave the show a powerful core and a terrific protagonist. The play itself is so well constructed that even though its structure is completely transparent, it is impossible for an audience not to be affected. (Well, that and the subject matter.) Stephen Press's direction was appropriately reverential, but his understanding of the play's power and the performances he drew would soften even the most resistant audience.
That the play is not the diary itself but an enactment of some events described is evident from the voice-over recitation of some of the book's passages. The description of the hunger pangs of the attic's residents, "each stomach like an instrument, just missing a Toscanini," is art, but not drama. How people react in captivity is drama, and Press staged it all most believably -- with several things happening at once in different playing areas, or allowing the audience to notice someone in bed facing the wall, a reminder of close quarters and tempers not always kept in check. Press was a member of the original Broadway cast, and he seemed to have absorbed the pain and power of this story into his bones.
But aside from its well-known subject matter, the play has elements of teenage comedy, romance, and family drama. And as a character, Anne is, well, quite a character. She's something of a drama queen, as gloriously unselfconscious as any healthy 13-year-old, with high spirits, spunk to spare, and lots of steam to let off. And all these elements were in Zoë Kawaller's performance, which embodied everything from irritating to endearing. She was raw and unpolished, and that was what made the performance real. And the interactions between mother (Barbara Blomberg) and child were immediate and as current as today. Blomberg added truth to the play with her insistence on decorum, as if the Franks were at home with guests -- it was her survival mechanism, but it gave the play an emotional center. As Mrs. Van Daan, Leslie Engel showed a woman who held on to her sanity by tenuously maintaining her superiority while being a good guest, but who cracks when required to give up her fur coat for the common good. It's hokey and overdramatic, but it worked. Anne Watters was at a disadvantage as Margot, Anne's older sister who is overshadowed by her star of a younger sister, but her patience with and affection for Anne were affecting. Stefanie Vinopal, a Modigliani painting come to life, brought the right mix of compassion and independence as Miep Gies.
Director Press may have worked especially hard with Adam Dodway, who played Peter Van Daan, Press's part in 19xx. And as no one can fight a tidal wave, Dodway rose to the challenge, particularly in the second act when Anne is 15 and Peter 17. It's a touching thing to see adolescents be adolescent even in captivity, and especially so with the tragedy we know is coming.
The set, by Max Lydy, combined the feeling of confinement with the sense of attic height -- the set was practically vertical, with the haphazard arrangement of rooms seeming to press down on each other. Heather Brower's lighting tended toward the overdramatic, highlighting players to make a point that would have been better made by other means. Costumes (Brad L. Scoggins) were true to the period and character.
The world is going through a phase, Anne wrote, echoing the adults' complaints about herself. Kawaller's performance as Anne Frank in this well-crafted play showed that drama and acting are alive today.
Also with Brian Hagerty, Bradford Harlan, Dan Grinko, and Daniel Burke.
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Copyright 2004 David Mackler