Monday, October 30, 2017

The Diary of Anne Frank -- Playhouse on Park

Frank van Putten as Otto Frank, Joni Weisfeld as Edith, Alex Rafala as Peter Van Daan, Allen Lewis Rickman as Mr. Van Daan, Jonathan D. Mesisca as Mr. Dussel, Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, Isabelle Barbier as Anne, Ruthy Froch as Margot. Photo: Courtesy of Curt Henderson
 The Diary of Anne Frank
Adapted by Wendy Kessleman from the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hacke (based upon                      "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl"
Directed by Ezra Barnes
Playhouse on Park
Through Nov. 19

By Lauren Yarger
The lights go down. A Nazi hate song chills the air and young Isabelle Barbier enters house left looking so much like the real Anne Frank that we think we are seeing a ghost. The stage at Playhouse on Park is set for one of the most gripping productions of The Diary of Anne Frank you'll ever see, as directed by Ezra Barnes.

Wendy Kesselman's adaptation of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on Anne Frank's diary detailing her years avoiding capture by the Nazis in World War II Amsterdam, offers an absorbing study of a teenage girl trying to make the best of her situation despite the horror and fear that surround her every day -- and Barbier channels Anne for an emotional and gripping experience. When she sheds outer clothes to complete her move into the attic, she reveals the requisite yellow star of David with each garment (Costume Design by Kate Bunce) as well as the promise of many layers of Anne's character to come.

When Anne's sister Margot (Ruthy Froch) receives orders to report to a work camp, her family knows what that really means in 1942 Amsterdam -- a sentence to board one of the trains regularly deporting thousands of Jews to death camps. Otto Frank (Frank van Putten) makes arrangements with his business associate, Mr. Kraler (Michael Enright), to hide the Franks along with another associate, Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), his wife, (Lisa Bostnar), and son Peter (Alex Rafala), in the attic of the annex of his former office building.

The families, who are quite different, are thrown together in cramped quarters (Scenic Designer David Lewis gives a broad view of the attic with multiple levels). Mr. Van Daan spends most of his time smoking cigarettes and thinking about food (when he isn't stealing rations while the others sleep). His wife longs for a return to her privileged existence, and buries herself in the fur coat given to her by her father to escape. Shy Peter, who likes to stay in his own room with his flea-ridden cat, is no match for the vivacious, inquisitive Anne who is starting to discover her sexuality.

Being cooped up in the attic where the inhabitants can't make any noise (including using the water closet) during business hours begins to take its toll, especially after a dentist, Mr. Dussel (Jonathan Mesisca), needs a last-minute escape and is added to the group. He brings his own quirks -- and devastating news about the fate of friends who were unable to go into hiding or escape.

During the 25 months in  the attic, rebellious teen Anne decides she hates her mother. Edith Frank (a terrific Joni Weisfeld) must add that burden to a set of worries that already have her in a state of depression: Margot's health is deteriorating, Mrs. Van Daan flirts with Otto, Anne and Peter's relationship is changing and every noise might mean that the Nazi's have discovered their hiding place.

Thanks to the taut direction by Barnes (and Lighting and Sound Direction by Christopher Bell and Joel Abbott, respectively), that fear is translated to the audience. At a point of silent trepidation when the attic dwellers think they have been discovered, an audience member behind me dropped a program and the noise almost startled me out of my seat. Barnes, who founded Connecticut's Shakespeare on the Sound, also gets kudos for leaving the actors on stage, going about their routines, during intermission -- a sobering comment on how we are free to get up, leave, chat, use the rest room, etc., but they are not. (And during that intermission, I googled a photo of the real Anne Frank just to be sure I wasn't over-imagining how much Barbier was reminding me of her. I don't think I was...)

The one bright spot in the attic is daily visits from Miep Gies (Elizabeth Simmons), a Dutch woman who brings food, books and other supplies as well as companionship and news from the outside world. (The real Miep saved Anne's diary after the residents are discovered and arrested.)

Every performance in this production is nailed with individual clarity. Barbier taking the spotlight as she creates a multi-faceted Anne who pulls at our heartstrings. The drama is so absorbing, that I felt as though I had spent months in the attic, even though only an hour and 15 minutes had passed before intermission. The play seems very relevant today in the midst of news reports about the rise of Antisemitism and Nazi-themed hate groups. It boggles the mind how anyone would embrace being part of causing the terror felt by our friends in the attic, and Anne's staunch belief in the good of humanity calls to us across time to resolve that this must never happen again. Don't miss this one.

“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
== Anne Frank

The Diary of Anne Frank, produced in partnership with the Jewish Community Foundation and the Jewish Federation, runs at Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford, through Nov. 19.  Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday matinee at 2, followed by a talk back with the cast. Special Tuesday matinee on Nov. 7 at 2 - all seats $22.50 this show only. Tickets are $25-$40:; 860-523-5900 x10.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)
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