Anne Frank, the precociously articulate Jewish teenager who chronicled her family's experience hiding from the Nazis for several years, has become an internationally known figure and a representative for the millions of innocents killed in the Holocaust. Her story is included on high-school syllabi and has been dramatized on stage and screen. Though familiar, her words haven't lost their resonance and power in the decades since their publication. Palo Alto Players keep Frank's memory alive this autumn with a worthy new production.
For those few unfamiliar with the story: Anne (age 13), her parents and her older sister, after suffering an increasing number of restrictions and indignities, are forced to go into hiding in the annex connected to father Otto Frank's former business. The Nazis have overtaken Amsterdam, where the family has resided since fleeing Germany in the early 1930s, and the city's Jewish population is being rapidly destroyed. Joining the Frank family in hiding are friends Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan and their teenage son Peter (plus his beloved cat) and dentist Mr. Dussel. These eight souls live in tense, cramped quarters for more than two years, at times facing starvation. They're aided by two of Otto Frank's trusted employees, Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, who risk their own lives in the process. Before being apprehended and doomed to a concentration camp, young Anne keeps a meticulous diary, writing anecdotes about everyday life in the secret annex, sharing her most intimate thoughts and feelings as well as startlingly wise insights into life and human nature. She dreams of becoming a journalist and plans to publish her work.
In real life, Miep Gies preserved Anne's journal after the family's capture and, post-war, returned it to Otto Frank, the sole survivor out of the annex's human residents. He published it in 1950; Pulitzer Prize-winning stage and Hollywood adaptations followed. The Palo Alto Players' production is Wendy Kesselman's 1997 reworking of the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. This newer version was created with the intent to restore some elements that were sanitized out of the 1950s edition, such as Anne reflecting on her emerging sexuality, and hostility toward her mother. Through Anne's sometimes-wise-beyond-her-years, sometimes naive eyes, we see how life in crowded exile takes its toll, with civilities giving way to bickering and simmering resentments. We see heartwarming moments, too: Anne and Peter's sweet romance, the group sharing a Hanukkah celebration.
Anne Frank's story is so well-known by now that it, and its characters, run the risk of becoming symbols rather than flesh-and-blood individuals. Palo Alto Players deliver a moving, respectable production of the tale, with a number of fine performances. And, crucially, its characters stand out as real humans, flaws and all, rather than symbolic martyrs.
At first, seeing grown-woman Roneet Aliza Rahamim in the role of 13-year-old Anne is disconcerting. In early scenes she overdoes the golly-gee enthusiasm, perhaps in attempt to seem more childlike. But she settles into the character and gives her vibrant energy and warmth. Sometimes moody, sometimes overly chatty for her neighbors' tastes, this only serves to make Anne more relatable, tempering her beautifully written musings with normal teenage-girl attributes. Her optimism embodies the spirit of humanity in the darkest of situations.
Anthony Stephens, as 16-year-old Peter, is well-cast as the shy, sullen, cat-devoted boy to whom vivacious Anne might not have been drawn in the outside world but who forms a bond with her in their shared plight. Rachel Michelberg and Shawn Bender as the elder Van Daans and Tom Bleecker as Mr. Dussel are excellent in their supporting roles, each embodying their characters' less endearing qualities realistically and sympathetically, showing once again that these are real, multidimensional humans. We see them quarrel over petty matters and try for more than their fair share of food but we also see their great love for their families and the terror they feel for their futures.
Anne's father and sister (Vic Prosak, and Megan Bartlett, respectively) come off as a bit too saintly in comparison (although Bartlett's performance as Margot is nicely understated and natural). Prosak's performance -- and Otto's lines in the script -- seem a bit wooden throughout the action of the play but at the end, when Otto alone remains to tell his family's tale, Prosak shines: heartfelt and heartbreaking.
Kuo-Hao Lo has designed another impressive set, expertly conveying the shabby, claustrophobic atmosphere of the annex while including enough different spaces that the show's action can move around the stage, from kitchen upstairs to bedroom nooks and back again.
"The Diary of Anne Frank" is successful partly because it puts a relatable human face on a tragedy that's of such immense scale and cruelty as to be difficult to comprehend. Anne Frank was remarkable in many ways but she, her family members and their friends could also be any of us. What happened to her and so many others happened only a few short decades ago. There could be people who lived through it in the audience at the Lucie Stern Theater during this production's run. Perhaps the play's -- and Anne's -- most important job is not only to teach us about the past but to remind us to think, vote and act carefully for the sake of our future.
What: "The Diary of Anne Frank"
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Nov. 20, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; Fridays/Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Info: Go to paplayers.org