Updated play brings new insights to poignant drama

It’s difficult not to have high expectations for the Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory program based on previous performances, and it once again hits the mark with a haunting and poignant production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

Most of us are familiar with the premise of the play, which is based on the diary of 13-year-old Anne Frank, who went into hiding with her family and four others during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. The book, originally released in 1947, has sold than 35 million copies — making it one of the best-selling books of all time. The play, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” is a recent adaptation by Wendy Kesselman that incorporates passages about Anne’s sexuality and her Jewish identity that had previously been omitted or downplayed in the original 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The play works on several levels. You can appreciate it as a heart-rending drama of human resilience and hope. Or take a deeper perspective and perceive it as a lesson in tolerance and understanding of the human condition. It is no coincidence that the Repertory chose this play in light of today’s political and cultural environment, as noted by director Christy Montour-Larson: “The profound relevance of Anne Frank’s legacy today cannot be understated … anti-Semitic incidents across the United States … increased by 67 percent from 2016.”

A harrowing tale

The story centers around Anne’s experience coming of age under extreme circumstances. In July of 1942 in Nazi-occupied Holland, the Frank family goes into hiding in a Secret Annex above the office of the company Mr. Frank owns in Amsterdam. Alongside his partner’s family, the Van Daans, the couple and their two daughters spend almost two years concealed in the center of the city as the Nazis gather strength and their fellow Jews are shipped to concentration camps and death.

Her diary was the one place for privacy. Anne wrote to understand herself and the horrors unraveling around her. Within its pages she unveils her fears, her hopes and her grief as we meet the emerging young woman: imperfect, funny, longing to grow up and hopeful for a future she will never see.

Sixteen-year-old actor Darrow Klein embodies the endless energy, spirit and optimism of Anne. Her effervescence lights up the dim surroundings of the attic and plays against the more serious cast members — particularly her mother, Edith Frank (Emily Paton Davis).

The intimate setting of the Black Box Theatre brings the audience directly into Anne’s Secret Annex. Artistic Director of Plays Lynne Collins created an intimate set that is a constant reminder of the oppressing presence of the Nazis and overarching fear of discovery as the sounds of marching boots and gunfire echoes through the Annex. The crowded quarters physically demonstrate the lack of privacy, but also manage to provide the actors with enough room for intimate conversations – aided by masterful lighting.

Strong cast

It seems clear that the actors have thoroughly researched their characters to understand the complex range of emotions wrought by the circumstances. Casting within an ensemble can be challenging and several of the roles were filled by unconventional actors in age or race/ethnicity, but the strength of the actors and the powerful characters mostly overcame this obstacle.

As the matron of the Frank household, Davies seems to physically bend to the constraints of the close quarters and the weight of her small family’s survival with slumped shoulders and bent back. Even her frequent quarrels with her headstrong daughter can’t rise her from her fear and misery. (The night I attended the role of Edith Frank was performed by understudy Cindy Laudadio-Hill, who turned in a fine performance.)

Her husband Otto Frank, played by Larry Cahn, rallies as the small group’s leader and the main supporter of his precocious daughter. Cahn plays a well-balanced patriarch who skillfully mediates between his daughter and his wife. His haunting last scene will linger with you long after leaving the theater.

As Mrs. Van Daan, Emma Messenger also deserves props for her performance, particularly for the scene in the second act affirming her deep love and understanding of her husband after he is called out by the others. Both of the other young characters, Margot (Annie Barbour) and Peter (Danial Crumrine), had strong performances with characters who are dealing with their own fears and trepidations.

One tip: It’s worth pausing during intermission to appreciate what’s happening on the stage, where in the spirit of the story, the actors aren’t allowed to leave the set.

“The Diary of Anne of Frank” is among the plays the Arvada Center Black Box Repertory is producing this season that celebrate female playwrights who shed light on the work of great female writers of the past.

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