The Western Stage tells the story of Anne Frank with a modern twist.
Thursday, May 30, 2002
Photo by Richard Green; Rewriting History-Wendy Kesselman''s stage adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank takes previously unreleased portions of Anne''s diary and incorporates them into an earlier script-with mixed results.
When the original The Diary of Anne Frank made its Broadway debut in 1955, it was something special. Presented a decade after the Nazis had been defeated and when the full story of their persecution of Jews was not widely known, the original stage adaptation (by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett) of an adolescent Jewish girl''s diary personalized the story and made it real.
But despite the play''s popularity, the script had some inherent weaknesses: Its power from came from its immediacy and factuality rather than dramatic structure, and the characters were very broadly drawn. So, in 1997, playwright Wendy Kesselman (My Sister In This House; I Love You, I Love You Not) unveiled her revision of the script.
As the Western Stage''s production of Kesselman''s script reveals, she did little to resolve the original problems and, in fact, added some of her own.
Taken from Anne Frank''s diary, the play tells the story of the Frank and van Daan families, who go into hiding in the loft of an Amsterdam business building during the Nazi occupation. Over the course of the two years they spend confined in their hideaway, the Franks (Anne, her sister Margot and her father and mother) and the van Daans (the teenage Peter and his parents) are joined by dentist Alfred Dussel. As the play progresses, audiences watch the two families struggle to survive on beans, rotten potatoes and the kindness of a former business associate-turned-benefactor. The cramped confines of the living quarters are fertile ground for squabbles; they are also the breeding ground for a budding romance between Anne and Peter.
It''s around this relationship that Kesselman adds much of her new material, which is taken from previously unreleased portions of Anne''s diary. Taken on their own merits, Anne''s descriptions of her first menstrual cycle and the way her body feels when she comes into contact with Peter are effectively moving. But compared to rest of the original script, they feel as if they''ve been grafted on. Yes, the real Anne Frank would have had those feelings, but the 1950s, sanitized and virginal character of Anne-the character that dominates the original script and most of this one-would have had nothing to do with the messy elements of reality. And this serves to underscore the weakness of the original script.
Throughout the play, the actors in the Western Stage production struggle to add depth to the idealized characters. While David Parker gives a warm, likable face to Anne''s father, Otto, he''s working with a script that paints Otto as unbelievably wise, loving and unflappable. In the role of Edith Frank, Anne''s mother, Anna Schumacher is able to give her character more depth-thanks in large part to some of Kesselman''s revisions that add a more dynamic relationship between mother and daughter.
Kesselman''s script also tries to give more depth to Petronella van Daan, here portrayed by Lisa Wiseman, who provides some emotional insight into the overly hysterical, shallow woman of the original script. Jay Hudson does justice to the weak-willed Hermann van Daan. In fact, one of this production''s most moving scenes comes when Wiseman''s Petronella comforts her husband after he''s caught stealing food from the communal supplies.
Troy Osteraa, in the role of Peter, manages the confused feelings of an adolescent male stuck in close quarters with an admiring young woman, and Hal Peiken offers a much-needed boost of energy with his portrayal of Alfred Dussell, the cranky but lovable dentist who joins the Franks and van Daans.
The role of Anne Frank is fraught with peril. As written, the character walks a razor''s edge between youthful optimism and frivolous abandon. Any actor faced with the role must give her character enough dignity to underscore the weight of her situation. At the same time, to give the show its intended ray of optimism, we must also see someone who has found a certain happiness in life despite her dire circumstances. It''s a tough balancing act, and Sarah Kenoyer''s Anne almost manages to pull it off. Unfortunately, Kenoyer errs on the side of giving her character too much frivolity robbing the character of her strength.
But Kenoyer''s valiant performance is nothing compared to what Kesselman did to steal Anne Frank''s thunder.
The original play ends with Anne''s musings about the basic goodness of humanity despite the enormity of evidence to the contrary. Kesselman''s adaptation tacks a distracting coda onto the story, a postwar soliloquy by Anne''s father, who recounts the way each of the other characters met their end. This ending serves to switch the focus, in the play''s very last minutes, from the title character to her father. Moreover, it subverts the hope that Anne Frank expresses in the basic goodness of humanity.
We all know, more or less, the story''s unhappy conclusion. But here, instead of images of Anne''s optimism, we''re left with the image of Anne Frank, her head shaven, stripped naked and covered with lice, peering through the fence at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Realistic though it may be, it''s a bummer of an ending that betrays what was best about the original script.
The Diary of Anne Frank plays at the Western Stage through June 28. Call 759-6012 for info.