The Rep’s “Anne Frank” a moving, nuanced tribute
The many-times-told story of a girl forced into hiding with her family during WWII has a powerful staging from a strong cast.
We know the subject matter of the Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank: The young girl’s tale of two years spent in a secret annex, hiding from Nazi soldiers with her family and four other refugees. On stage and screen, the story’s been told and retold since the diary’s publication by her father in 1947.
But knowing the end of the story makes this production more powerful as it pays tribute to lives unfairly destroyed by hatred and intolerance.
The play chronologically follows Anne’s diaries, excepting two post-war segments at the beginning and end featuring Otto Frank (Jonathan Gillard Daly), the only survivor. Originally, Otto, his wife (Laura Gordon) and his daughters Margot (Emily Berman) and Anne (Lauren Hirte) share their hiding space with only three others, the Van Daans (Lee E. Ernst and Deborah Staples) and their son Peter (J. Alexander Coe). Their benefactors, Miep Gies (Kelley Faulkner) and Victor Kraler (James Pickering) shortly bring an eighth to join them, a dentist named Mr. Dussel (Larry Neumann, Jr.)
It doesn’t seem like a large cast at first, until they start settling in. Theater usually has a way of making a small space seem larger than it is, but scenic designer Dan Conway’s set does the opposite. When paired with the casts’ inability to leave the stage – cleverly, even during the play’s intermission, in which action continues silently – the effect is fittingly claustrophobic.
That claustrophobia affects the characters quickly. Tensions break out almost immediately between Anne and the Van Daans, and as time passes, all eight develop the potential to fly off the handle at a moment’s notice. It’s a complicated dynamic to get right, but the Rep’s cast is stacked with talent. There isn’t a weak actor in the bunch, and it’s a great gift to the play.
Of course, there’s a certain sense in which it’s as hard to perform The Diary of Anne Frank poorly as it is to perform it wonderfully. Hirte, for example, isn’t as strong in the first act as she is in the second, when Anne is a bit older, but she’s able to make the earlier, juvenile portrayal work because she’s playing an archetype. Much of the cast falls into the same boat, playing their characters effectively but not magnificently.
So the little things stand out. Berman takes the quiet role of Margot and emphasizes physical gags instead, peevishly clipping Anne with a towel in passing or comically fleeing a room at the sound of her name to avoid an argument. Coe displays an admirable level of nuance as Peter, letting the teen’s brave façade slip every so often to reveal the uncertain boy underneath. And even before Gordon gets to the crucial scene where she jettisons her manners and she nearly throws out the Van Daans, her Mrs. Frank is clearly polite and not just complacent, as Anne believes her to be.
The biggest “little thing” of all is how normal the play feels. The circumstances that brought the Franks, Van Daans and Dussel to the annex are never forgotten, but the cast and director KJ Sanchez emphasize Anne’s coming-of-age moments, which are never incidental. The tragedy that Anne will never pursue her dream of becoming a journalist or go on a real date with Peter – and the similar tragedies the others face – is always present, but continually deferred until bangs on the door remind us that we know the end to their story.
The Milwaukee Rep’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank will run through Dec. 2 at the Quadracci Powerhouse. Tickets are $10 to $65 and can be purchased at (414) 224-9490 or at the Rep’s website.