The Diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s words have more resonance than this theater production.

Forget the 1950s play and movie about Anne Frank's diary, the generations of schoolchildren assigned to read the book, the myths that have arisen around the image of Anne Frank herself, the controversies about the way she's been represented. Just focus on Anne Frank's words. After all these years — had she survived, Anne would be in her late seventies now — her voice is still clear and alive.

Although Anne Frank's diary chronicles a young girl's awakening and maturation, she wasn't a fragrant blossom about to be cruelly blighted or a wide-eyed deer caught in the crosshairs. Anne was a sharp and original thinker, a critic and a poet. She wasn't always nice. Before her almost-two-year incarceration in the secret annex where she hid with her family and four others, the fourteen-year-old schoolchild was sometimes bossy and full of herself, exulting in her attractiveness to boys, listing her friends' weaknesses in merciless detail. One of those friends, Hannah Goslar, has commented that her own mother used to say, "God knows everything, but Anne knows everything better." The anger Anne expresses toward her mother throughout the diary appears to go beyond the usual teenage rebellion, even if we think of it as exacerbated by the forced intimacy in which the entire group lived. She frequently turns a mocking satirist's eye on her fellow prisoners. She loathes her inadvertent roommate, the middle-aged dentist she calls Dussel, and details his weaknesses with relish. There are moments of compassion, too, when she wonders at her own rages or tries to understand her mother (though always returning to her inability to love her). And there are also times of terrible fear and despair. Most touching and eloquent are the passages in which Anne describes her awakening sexuality and her growing interest in Peter, the teenage boy who shares the hideout. As Anne recounts their conversations, the way they sit together in silence in his tiny room and her insecurities and inchoate yearnings, her observations about the others in the annex become gentler, and the tone of the diary changes.

Aya Cash (left) as Anne Frank and Deirdre Madigan as her mother in The Diary of Anne Frank.
Aya Cash (left) as Anne Frank and Deirdre Madigan as her mother in The Diary of Anne Frank.

The Denver Center Theatre Company has mounted Wendy Kesselman's rewritten version of The Diary of Anne Frank, the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that not only sugarcoated the horror that drove Anne into hiding and eventually destroyed her, but — in deference to the prejudices of the time — soft-pedaled the family's Jewishness in order to make the story more universal. Kesselman has restored some passages that reveal how central Anne's Jewishness was to her sense of herself, and she has made sure to remind the audience of the Nazi menace, incorporating the sounds of Allied bombing and shouting German voices into the action. In the 1950s version, Anne's comment near the end of the diary that she clings to her ideals "because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart" was presented as a ringing affirmation — but here Anne utters these words only seconds before German soldiers burst into the room. In an epilogue delivered by her father, Otto, we learn of her death in Bergen-Belsen, despairing and covered in lice, believing that her entire family has perished. (In the film Anne Frank Remembered, Goslar wonders whether Anne could have endured the month or so that remained until the camp was liberated had she known her father was still alive.)

Of course, every time period has its own biases, and those of our culture show in Kesselman's revisions. She has made the Franks perhaps a touch more observant than they actually were. (Chanukah was indeed celebrated in the annex, as she indicates, but so was St. Nicholas Day.) And there are moments in this play as sentimental as anything the 1950s could come up with. Anne and her mother arrive at a tear-saturated reconciliation. The relationship between Anne and Peter — shorn by Kesselman of all its magic, awkwardness, ambivalence and eccentricity — begins with a childish tussle over a shoe and climaxes like a scene in a Hollywood movie: Peter summons up the courage to give Anne an awkward peck on the cheek, and she responds — to the knowing chuckles of the audience — by kissing him full on the mouth.

Most of the performances are solid, and Aya Cash gives the character of Anne Frank some charm and vitality, though insufficient depth. But overall, this production feels less like a piece of theater than an instructive after-school special. And in fact, the Denver Center is using it to enlighten schoolchildren about the Holocaust. That makes the event virtuous, but it doesn't make it art.

Transferring a literary work to a different medium is always difficult; it may not be possible to translate the richness of the diary for stage alone. Perhaps film, music or dance might do it more justice. Or it might work as a one-woman show, with a young actress alone on a stage reading Anne Frank's words, as Julie Rada so movingly spoke Rachel Corrie's recently at the Bindery. A profoundly talented writer whether she was re-creating comic scenes complete with dialogue, remembering her past or musing on what it means to be Jewish, Anne Frank simply didn't know how to be boring or superficial. But bringing this shining and irreplaceable soul to life requires a greater leap of the creative imagination than is evident here.

 
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