Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Diary Of Anne Frank (The SOB Review)

The Diary Of Anne Frank (The SOB Review) - Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, Chicago, IL

***1/2 (out of ****)

While the current Steppenwolf revival of The Diary Of Anne Frank begins rather melodramatically and with a surprising minimum of urgency, director Tina Landau ultimately succeeds in building this play into an engrossing, near pitch-perfect production.

Of course, the play is based on the eponymous journal kept by the German-born Jewish girl whose family stole her and her sister away in hidden rooms adjacent to the Amsterdam workplace of her father, just as Jews in Nazi-occupied Holland were being rounded up and sent to death camps during the Holocaust.

The source material may be already be 63 years old, but Landau brings a haunting brilliance to the time-honored dramatization by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, thanks in part to its current adaptation by Wendy Kesselman. Landau also takes chances by enabling the story to move beyond the play's previous conclusion in such a striking fashion that there were audible gasps from the audience. Landau triumphs in proving why this timeless classic deserves to be retold yet again.

This extraordinary production is also blessed by an exceptional ensemble, each of whom turns in a profoundly moving performance. Chief among them are the absolutely astounding Claire Elizabeth Saxe in the title role and a spectacularly measured performance by Yasen Peyankov as her father.

The amazingly youthful-looking Saxe begins with all the spunkiness one would expect from a precocious twelve year old, but gracefully transitions to the height of pubescence apropos of a teen on the brink of realizing a heartfelt crush. Right before your eyes, her maturation, physically and emotionally, is palpable. You won't believe you're watching a current high school senior -- she's that good.

Peyankov offers perhaps the most stunning achievement of all with the steady reassurance and hope he offers as Otto Frank, not only for his family and fellow hideaways, but by extension for his fellow Jews and humanity. By scaling his performance so astonishingly, Peyankov becomes the heart of this production.

Fortunately, the harrowing account remains the biggest star of this retelling, but it is aided tremendously by an eerie lighting design (Scott Zielinski) and downright alarming sound design (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen).

This is a production that deserves to be seen, not only by those who don't understand the extent of the Nazis' savageries, but also for anyone who yearns for a deeper appreciation for the galvanic capabilities of the young Anne Frank's words that remain as vital today as ever.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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At 26 April, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the thoughtful, sensitive review on what sounds like a memorable production.

I've never seen the play or the movie, but I have read The Diary of a Young Girl and I've visited the building in Amsterdam where the Frank family was hidden, which is now a museum.

I think you're right on target when you talk about the transition that Claire Elizabeth Saxe has to make. Playing Anne must be a tremendous challenge for an actress, because it does require moving from being a little girl to the awkwardness of adolescence.

What struck me from reading the diary was the fact that while Anne was living in a constrained and dangerous environment, her concerns were still very much those of a teenager: her burgeoning sexuality, the feeling that her mother didn't understand her. She really embodied a sense of worldliness and innocence at the same time. I guess it says something about the need for humans to strive for some semblance of normalcy even under the most abnormal circumstances.

I know that over the years, the Goodrich and Hackett version has been criticized for downplaying Anne's religion, leaving out the passages from the diary where she talks about being Jewish, making it more of a universal coming-of-age story. It seems hard to believe that you could separate Jewishness from the story, but I know it's been written about.

I don't know how much of this is in the play, but I think that in some way, the most interesting part of the story is the role of the Franks' Christian friends who risked their own lives to help them hide from the Nazis.

We all hope we'd be the kind of person who would never turn our back on someone, not a family member, just a fellow human being, who needed our help. But I guess we never really know how we'd act until we're in that situation.

That's the one thing I would hope theatergoers walk away discussing - As a society, how do we instill values in children so that they'll grow up to be the kind of adults who would act in such a selfless way?

At 26 April, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...


Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. Like you, I had never before seen the play or the movie (but I was with someone who had previously appeared in two versions of the play, so I received insights on the work's prior progression).

Also, like you, I've been to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam -- in fact, I've been there four times and have been fascinated by the story of survival in one of history's most brutal times.

What struck me about this play was its ability infuse a realistic cross-section of individuals who are not only united in their being Jewish, but also in their humanity.

The Jewish element certainly is highlighted, not only as they cut the Nazi-required Star of David off their clothes, but also as they come together around the dining room table to celebrate Hanukkah. The production provides a wonderful panoply of real individuals who don't neatly fit into any one stereotype.

As for the Christians who have risked helping the families in hiding, they are certainly an important but not overriding part of this production. While I didn't name them by name, Mariann Mayberry gave perhaps the most subtle performance I've ever seen her give, while Robert Brueler was superb. Both were very believable.

Finally, on your comment regarding instilling "values in children so that they'll grow up to be the kind of adults who would act in such a selfless way," I was struck by the notes from Steppenwolf's Artistic Director Martha Lavey, who indicated that this was initially considered for their student series. She said, in part:

"Our Director of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, Hallie Gordon, asked me to re-read The Diary of Anne Frank for consideration on our student series. I re-read the play and was knocked out by its deep humanity and the rich opportunity for beautiful ensemble acting. While it is obvious why the play is important for young audiences, it felt equally obvious that the play needs to be seen (perhaps again) by our general audiences. Tapping Tina as the director for the piece assured that the play would receive a fresh, energetic and deeply researched production."

I certainly believe that this production can and will inspire the young members of its audience to weigh their moral choices in a more deliberative fashion. Hopefully, every audience for this production will be as it was when I visited it: young and old sharing the experience together.


At 29 April, 2007, Blogger KGCRMSN said...

I agree. Claire Elizabeth Saxe was absolutely astounding. Her performance was so nuanced and vital, she became the embodiment of Anne Frank like no one I have seen before. The play was mesmerizing, thanks not only to the brilliant acting but to the entirely original set design, sound, lighting (with larger-the-life shadows cast) and overall production values. This is a show not to be missed. Tell all your friends.

At 29 April, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Thanks for your comments, Barry.

You're absolutely right about all of the production values integrated into this show. And you can bet I'm telling my friends!



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