By Dale King
The Diary of Anne Frank – the powerfully told memoir of a young Jewish girl, her family and associates forced to hide for nearly two years to escape Nazi persecution during World War II – is one of the most famous and haunting stories to emerge from the horrific Holocaust years. Performed with great passion and depth by students from the Department of Theatre and Dance at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, it pulls at the sinews of the soul.
Anyone who still feels discomfort when watching a documentary about John F. Kennedy, knowing he will die in the end; the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or the fiery demise of the Twin Towers on 9/11 may experience the same pangs at FAU’s Studio One Theatre, where the production is about to conclude its two-weekend run.
Student actress Erin Williams is at her best as the younger daughter of Otto (Sean Patrick Gibbons) and Edith (Jessica Eaton) Frank. Cute and brimming with smiles, she pours heartfelt thoughts into the red checkered book with the locking cover.
FAU uses the newly adapted, 1997 version of the play redrafted by Wendy Kesselman. Director Jean-Louis Baldet feels the “revitalization [is what] this story needed.” The original 1955 play, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is “dated” by comparison.
In essence, Baldet says the older script uses Anne’s “words and sentence structure at all moments.” The FAU performance is less wordy and more active since it transforms many of Anne’s thoughts into actions. “This script is 30 percent shorter than the original and yet loses none of the original story and impact,” the director adds.
So when Otto Frank and Mr. Van Daan (Joey De LaRua) argue, the audience sees expressive anger and hears loud words, not the recollections of an adolescent. The gallery feels the full portion of terror from two Jewish families living in constant fear for their lives.
The Kesselman revision allows Anne’s memoir-in-the-making to deliver a clearer message. We see a playful girl who seems to have her entire life ahead of her revel in stolen, pensive moments. We are surprised to hear Anne share her feelings about tenderness – even blossoming thoughts of love, kissing and sharing the intimate desires of an adolescent entering puberty.
Kesselman’s adaptation of the original, Pulitzer Prize-winning script draws from previously unpublished segments of Anne Frank’s actual diary, allowing the audience to experience her in a way that breathes life into this passionate, complex young lady with so much to live for.
Intensity amps up at the specter of Nazis discovering the hideout in the sealed-off upper rooms of the annex at the rear of Otto Frank’s office in Amsterdam. (The Germans were deporting Dutch Jews to death camps).
In the play, Otto’s business partner, his family and a trusted dentist join them in their captivity. In her diary, Anne changes the business partner’s surname to Van Daan and the dentist’s to Mr. Dussel.
Cast members in the FAU production portray their characters so well that their strengths and weaknesses become clear. Mr. Van Daan is selfish and easily swayed. He whimpers after he is discovered stealing bread from the families’ dwindling stash of food.
Mrs. Van Daan (Amanda Corbett) is, like her husband, selfish, easily angered and often frustrated. She reacts with indignation when her husband demands she sell her mink coat, a gift from her father, because “we are broke.” But he is not being truthful here. He wants the money to buy cigarettes.
The Franks are honest, hard-working and crafty, clearly the leaders of the imprisoned families. Their elder daughter, Margot (Gabriela Tortoledo), is more emotional, but strong and just as caring as her younger sister who comes of age in their oppressive surroundings.
Still, Anne’s spirit transcends, and she voices the belief in her diary that “People are truly good at heart.”
Or, as Baldet sums up the production, “It richly reveals the intricacies of family, the immense difficulty of living in a confined space for an extended period and the corrosive effects of feelings and frustration, distrust, betrayal and uncertainty.”
In addition to Williams’ superb portrayal of Anne, Gibbons and Eaton are exceptional as her parents. As he did in the last FAU production, Omnium Gatherum, Gibbons plays his part with simmering alertness that always threatens to break out. Eaton is equal parts tough and tender.
De LaRua plays Van Daan as frequently overbearing and self-serving, a departure from previous roles. Corbett, fresh from Omnium Gatherum where she portrayed the gourmet chef, shows Mrs. V as being more interested in her person than her people.
Zak Westfall does a nice turn as their son, Peter Van Daan. He displays his gentle side early and often, tenderly caring for his pet cat and spending time reading rather than reveling. Eventually, he realizes that he is falling in love with Anne.
Connie Pezet takes on the role of Miep Gies and Manny Zaldivar is Mr. Kraler, two citizens who hide the families and bring them necessities – and news – from the outside world where they are forbidden to go. They are most visible when they warn the captives to run away before the authorities arrive. But they don’t make it. Three Germans (Gray West, James Lanners and Trayven Call) arrive to take the families away.
The Diary of Anne Frank concludes with performances Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at Studio One Theatre on the FAU Boca Raton campus. Tickets are $20 (FAU faculty, staff, alumni $15; students $12) and may be purchased at 561-297-6124 or by visiting the box office in FAU’s Student Union.