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The Diary of Anne Frank — Media Theatre

Anne Franj interior In Jesse Cline’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Media Theatre, daily life, with all of the tiffs, bruises, and warm moments people experience when residing in close quarters, becomes so routine in the cramped apartment hiding two Dutch Jewish families from Nazi deportation , you not only wish for,  but expect, a different ending from the one you know must come.

      Hope takes over from fear as the Franks and van Daans and their boarder, Mr. Dussel, go from days to years in their Amsterdam refuge. Radio reports tell of D-Day, Allied victories, and the impending liberation of France, the Netherlands, and much of the territory the Third Reich occupies by military force. The defeat of Nazism seems so near, you almost believe the denizens of the secret annex will endure to enjoy fresh air and freedom again.

      It is the way existence in the hiding place becomes ordinary, the way in which the different personalities coincide, and the overcoming of minor crises that creates this false security. Hardships of hiding such as learning to get along, developing quiet habits, sharing  a single bathroom, wearing the same clothes, and eating food that is not only meager and unvarying but old and spoiled have been addressed and mastered. Custom has taken over and, along with time, the adjustments lull one into the belief  reality will not encroach.

      Cline and his cast create this mood of ordinariness with care. The director’s production stresses the relationship between people, testy and accommodating as it can be in turn. The war, Nazi domination, and the plight of the Dutch in general are all kept in the audience’s mind by Cline’s use of slides and film footage from the period, as well as from the radio broadcasts and the characters’ expression of concern. The feeling of dread, and of sadness for the Franks and van Daans, is constant, but potent as it is, it stays in the background, while Cline lets us see the people who are hunted solely because of their religion and ethnic origin as they adapt to their refugee life and go from always walking on eggshells to more resignedly taking each day as it comes. It is because we get to see the human side of the Franks and van Daans that their fate and the Media production become more poignant. They give faces and names to the six million who perished at the hands of Nazi murderers simply because they were born of Jewish extraction. Just as Anne Frank’s diary gives voice and testimony to the ordeal of one young girl living through the Holocaust, her family and their companions on stage serve to show the everyday nature of the people being persecuted. The Franks, Anne included, and the van Daans have their faults. They are not always entirely likeable, but their pursuits and their lives were little different from that of their non-Jewish neighbors. Seeing that in a production that makes it plain gives “The Diary of Anne Frank” extra depth. The story may center on one girl who grows from age 13 to 15 in the time frame of Wendy Kesselman’s play, but it is richer when it gives focus to each of the eight people who lived in the annex with Anne, and richer still when the eight stand by extension for millions.

       Anne Frank’s diary reveals the thoughts of a girl as she matures from a curious and mischievous child to a more thoughtful young adult. Anne describes herself as carefree and is candid to say what she thinks of all of the people in the annex. This includes unflattering thoughts about her mother. Wendy Kesselman, in her 1997 update of the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is shrewd about how she brings Anne to the stage. She gives the character a chance to be a little girl, even a headstrong and naughty little girl who imitates others, taunts, and creates hard feelings. Anne, at the beginning of Kesselman’s play, is someone who has to grow up fast because of the dangerous circumstances in which the Franks are living and because she has more adults to appease than her parents.

       Cline gives license to Anastasia Korbal to be a bit of a brat when we first meet Anne. The girl may be in hiding, but she is still a 13-year-old given to sticking her tongue out at people, tripping someone for a joke, or arguing when she disagrees with an attitude and situation. In the course of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” we see both Anne and Korbal evolve as Anne matures in keeping with the actual Anne’s own words.

       The Media audience gets the chance to know all of the characters well. Anne’s sister, Margot, played with sweet modesty  by Dana Gitlin, is the only one who doesn’t have a major or revealing scene. Even so, we see her as the “good” sister, the shyer, more serious elder child who is content to behave as she must. In Margot’s case, she actually likes the quiet, and she never becomes quite at home in the annex as Anne and the others do.

      The leader and voice of reason in the extended household is Anne’s father, Otto, who has arranged most of the details involving the hiding and keeps order when disputes or all-out enmity occur among the refugees. Paul Dake is stolid and respectable in the role. His hand his gentle but judicially firm. It is Otto who has the wisdom to manage all that arises and Otto who comes off as the play’s hero as well as Anne’s.

      It is difficult to see Anne’s objection to her mother, Edith, as played with grace by Margaret DeAngelis. Perhaps Edith is too conventional and regards respectability and ladylike behavior as  more important than Anne does. Perhaps she doesn’t share Anne’s flair for the creative and the dramatic. She is nevertheless a calming presence in the annex. Edith has one outburst of anger over what she considers a selfish and unforgivable act, and DeAngelis handles that well. The actress also shows that though Edith is nervous on the family’s behalf, she can rally to do her job in keeping the annex orderly and running smoothly. The conflict between Edith and Anne, a phase common to mothers and adolescent daughters, once more underscores the normality of the Franks in all but their need to save their lives by going into hiding. It is the way the everyday takes center stage while war rages outside and threats to the Franks are imminent that gives Cline’s production its strength. The scene of the moment takes precedence over the calamity to come.

       The most difficult adult denizen of the annex is Mr. van Daan. He is the most assertive and the most likely to infringe on the comfort and habits of others to insist on his own way. He is harsh with his wife, cold and dismissive to his son, and flinty with the other adults, including Otto Frank. Scott Langdon, so good in several shows at the Media, plays van Daan with all his bad traits showing. This is an ordinary bully, and Langdon shows him as a man who is always dissatisfied, always bossy, and always with a chip on his shoulder. The actor doesn’t emphasize or exaggerate van Daan’s   temperamental traits. He does something better. He incorporates the tough, hard side of van Daan into a complete character who looks like a typical Joe on the street but saves his snide side for the people with whom he lives. Langdon shows how annoying van Daan can be but also why his family is loyal to him.

      One of the loyal is his son, to whom Mr. van Daan is rarely kind. Whenever van Daan does something that irks Mrs. Frank or Anne, Peter is always by his father’s side. The part is double cast at the Media. The Peter I saw was Austy Hicks, who played the role with great sensitivity. Peter has the bashfulness of a boy who is coming of age in a home that now includes two teenage girls, both of which are attracted to him. Hicks does well playing Peter’s initial awkward stand-offishness and adapts well to later scenes in which Peter and Anne have forged a friendship that involves long talks, shared ideas, and the beginning of genuine affection.

      Hicks and Korbal are young performers. Each has to develop more technique and concentrate on diction, but both convey all their characters must in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and it’s good to know talent of their caliber is being nurtured.

       Korbal, a veteran of sorts at age 14, is a complete Anne. You can tell she enjoys the devilish Anne who populates the first scenes of the play. Korbal displays Annes’ freedom and the pleasure she gets from pulling off a prank, especially one that affects Peter, for typical girl-boy reasons, or Mrs, Frank for typical mother-daughter reasons.

      As Anne gets older, and the writing in her diary expresses her maturity as much her aging does, Korbal’s performance deepens. She is best as the reflective, contemplative Anne. Her performance intensifies in scenes in which Anne gets to muse and tell her thoughts and feelings directly to the audience.

      Korbal’s is a natural talent, and the freedom she gives herself as an actress is right for Anne as a character.  It is impressive that she can harness her exuberance for quieter scenes with Peter and others that pay off in terms of the total production.

       P. Brendan Mulvey is properly amusing as he uses sarcasm to express his displeasure with Anne and with certain situations. Offhand remarks are part of Mr. Dussel’s humor, and while Mulvey can at times can come off as a scolding uncle, he is usually justified enough in his complaints against Anne to warrant sympathy. His is a strong and authentic performance made better by the wit with which Mulvey conveys Mr. Dussel’s temper.

      The most emotional inmate of the annex is Mrs. Van Daan, who you can tell has been spoiled and who is also a bit tired of her husband’s meanness. Mrs. Van Daan likes to be the center of attention and also has a knack for drama that is more childish and strident than Anne’s. Anne Connors plays her as a woman who consumes any space she happens to be filling, someone who makes the intimate confines of the annex even more claustrophobic with her tantrums and how easily she is wounded by others. It is a big performance that goes beyond the boundaries of anyone else’s.

     Becoming familiar with the Franks, the van Daans, and Mr. Dussel and really seeing each of their good and bad traits brings “The Diary of Anne Frank” to vibrant life. Cline’s cast creates real, palpable beings whose strengths and fragility show the range of humanity from Otto’s decency and sound judgment to Mr. van Daan’s lack of willpower and Mrs. Van Daan’s emotional outbursts. The authenticity with which Korbal, Gitlin, Hicks, Langdon, Dake, DeAngelis, Connors, and Mulvey play establishes a core of authenticity that make it more heartbreaking when the Franks, van Daans, and Mr. Dussel are discovered.

       Cline uses the offbeat to make their capture seems sudden and surprising. No sirens, lights, or even noise foreshadows the appearance of Nazis breaking through the annex door. The capture scene is long and brutal. It may be a stronger dose of reality than is required, but it is certainly effective in its timing and roughness.

Although Matthew Miller’s set fills the width of the Media stage, its multiple levels and various stairs make it feel as intimate and claustrophobic as the annex in which Anne Frank hid, and which I’ve visited three times during trips to Amsterdam. Carl Park’s sound design brings in the sounds of outside Amsterdam that remind us that life goes one, including ominously in the form of the Green Police on the Prinzengracht and other streets outside of the Franks’s hiding place. The black-and-white footage Cline runs during scene breaks remind one of the ferocious ugliness of the Nazi onslaught.

      “The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through Sunday, February 16 at the Media Theatre, 104 East State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, and 10 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday to accommodate school audiences. Tickets are $42 with discounts for seniors and students and can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or going online to www.mediatheatre.org.

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