Anne Frank’s immortal words about love, fear, and hope come alive once again at Rockville Little Theatre’s new production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Based on the words of World War II’s most famous diarist, the teenage Anne gives vivid testimony to the precarious lives of Jewish families in hiding during the Holocaust. The play was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman.
Director Pauline Griller-Mitchell and the cast do an admirable job of maintaining acute high-wire tension throughout the production. We know all too well how the tragedy will unfold. Yet, we find ourselves willing to hope the Franks’ story will somehow end differently this time. After all, they, the Van Daan family, and the dentist, Mr. Dussell, come so close to being liberated.
Standout performances by Julie Kashmanian, as Anne, and Keith Cassidy, as her father Otto Frank, underpin this theatrical outing. Kashmanian embraces Anne first with the awkward, Bambi-like exuberance of a young woman on a novel adventure. Hiding out with new friends behind a secret doorway has exotic potential for this imaginative, glass-half-full teen. She will think of the annex as a strange summer boarding house. Little does she know they will be there for over two years.
Through the evening, Kashmanian transforms Anne into a sensuous young woman before our eyes. Anne is entranced with her own changing body. Her too-small black flats are replaced by racy red high heels miraculously procured by the families’ bold and selfless real-life protector, Miep Gies (Tracy Husted).
Anne also feels the first pangs of romantic love for the shy and awkward Peter Van Daan (Jack Husted). She prepares for their “dates,” a few chaste moments alone in the attic with Peter, as carefully as a young teen in normal circumstances might get ready for a prom.
Keith Cassidy as Otto Frank is graceful and heroic. The natural leader of this accidental band, he exudes empathy and supports each character’s efforts to maintain dignity under ghastly circumstances. His especially close relationship with Anne is a dramatic linchpin. Only he can comfort her when nightmare visions of Nazis cause her to scream out – rattling her fellow inmates to the bone. The fussy and irascible Mr. Dussell, brought to life by David Kimmelman, runs to the water closet in a pathetic attempt to hide.
Scenic Designer Eric Henry and Lighting Designer James Robertson create visual interest throughout – no easy feat in a production that necessitates virtually all the main characters to remain on a single set for the entire evening.
Varying levels in which key scenes play out – Anne’s bedroom, the tiny attic, and the cramped common room in which they eat, argue, celebrate and hope – is one component of the visual tapestry.
Sensitive lighting is the other essential component. We focus intently on the characters bathed variously in warm yellows and cool blues as they relate their hopes and fears, while others silently shift their positions in the near-dark. Harsh bright lights trained on the theater exits herald the dreaded arrival of soldiers and their collaborators.
Matthew Ratz’ provocative sound design connects our characters to the outside world by slender, menacing threads. A barking dog, the footsteps of a thief, the steady drumbeat of marching soldiers, and the drone of sirens are the captives’ only aural glimpses of German-occupied Amsterdam beyond the visits of Miep and Mr. Kraler (Eric Henry), who supply the families with food and a precious, purloined radio.
Harlene Leahy’s costumes advance the story as well. The Franks and Van Daans arrive at the annex in their prosperous Sunday best. Mrs. Van Daan takes absurd pride in entering the cramped quarters swathed in a beloved fur coat, a gift from her father 17 years before. Two years into their confinement, aged garments hang from the characters’ hunched and meager frames. The coat has been sold on the black market.
Despite its outcome, Anne’s story is one of love, perseverance, and goodness, as much as it addresses extreme hate and fear – huge problems we are again grappling with today. In her director’s notes, Ms. Griller-Mitchell says that while she usually tells audiences to “sit back and enjoy this production,” she sees this play as a cautionary tale. With hate crimes on the rise and an emerging trend towards authoritarian regimes, she reminds us not to simply stand by.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.