Even though the Public Theatre and the Cooper City-based PPTOPA have jointly wheeled out a tender and worthwhile production of The Diary of Anne Frank, it can still seem like a painfully repetitive task to sit down for yet another telling of the story of this fated girl's two years spent hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic.
That feeling may be immediately dispelled in the theater's parking lot, though, where you may encounter young girls on their way to the theater singing the dreidel song. You realize that, if nothing else, this play represents a cultural event important enough for parents to substitute a Saturday matinee for PlayStation and Nickelodeon, providing some first steps in learning harsh historic truths.
The hidden Amsterdam annex of Anne Frank is chock-a-block with characters, in a claustrophobic microcosm of society where all the loves, hates, and fears of growing up, including growing sexual desire, are constrained even as they bloom. "Of all the boys in the world, how did I get locked up with you?" Anne (Katie Schwartz) says to 16-year-old Peter Van Daan (Chris Gandero), whose family also shares the Franks' space.
Directed by Public Theatre's David Jay Bernstein, the production is full of warm and natural performances. The talented Schwartz makes Anne credible throughout, especially in some tender and dynamic scenes between Anne and sister Margot (Danielle Tabino) and Anne and Peter that bring out the best in the actors.
The adults are also wonderful to watch, especially mother Frank (Candace Caplin) and Mr. Van Daan (Jack Frank Sigman) as they bicker through tensions encountered by two cooped-up families. You know they're giving their all not just because they want to put on a good show but because they believe in the play's cultural importance.
The script an adaptation by playwright Wendy Kesselman of the Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett 1950s chestnut has been making the rounds since a 1997 staging on Broadway with Natalie Portman in the lead. The newer adaptation has reinserted material from the original diary previously left out, either because of her father's overbearing edits or the manipulation of the original playwrights.
Now you get to see, beyond young Anne's saccharine hopes, her disdain for her mother, her anxieties and nightmares, and her sexual development and longing. "Each time I get my period, I have the feeling that, even with all the discomfort, I have a sweet secret." There's a lot of Judy Blume in there. "Whenever he looks at me with those eyes, I get this feeling," she says of Peter.
Despite these changes, which make Anne more real, Anne Frank does still feel something like a chore. It's ultimately like going to church or temple, something you have to endure in order to remember and reflect on the past.
There's also something increasingly creepy about the experience, especially as you reflect now with greater insight into the diary and the play's evolution. Otto Frank (nicely portrayed by Sonny Levitt) was, as it turned out, the original "dad as manager." Like Jessica and Ashlee Simpson's father, he lived off the genius of his progeny, even though she was long dead, as he censored sections of the diary and manipulated Anne's legacy to create a sanitized and pure memory of the girl.
In the play, Otto Frank comes across in a wholly sanctimonious and self-promotional way, right up through his epilogue speech, in which he describes how all of the other characters died in the Holocaust. Yes, Otto Frank was the only one who survived, which meant he could spin the story any way he wanted.
But perhaps we have all used her, as did her father, to provide a sentimental outlook on a dark time in an accessible way for kids to understand. Anne Frank has become the defining entry for kids into "dark" theater. How many young girls with acting ambitions have on their résumés both cheery Annie, whose sun is always coming out tomorrow, and poor little Anne?
At least with this newer version, instead of the irrepressible girl so sanguinely drilled into our heads through previous versions of the play, a more real girl might remain, a girl who in truth was ambitious and more truly aware of her fate in what she finally calls "the approaching thunder which will destroy us too."