Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review of "The Diary of Anne Frank"

We know what happens.  Still, The Diary of Anne Frank at Playhouse on Park is a gripping and moving production.  With an outstanding cast and taut direction, this is one of the best dramas I’ve seen at the West Hartford theater in years.
"The Diary of Anne Frank" features Frank van Putten as Otto Frank, Joni Weisfeld as Edith, Alex Rafala as Peter Van Daan, Allen Lewis Rickman as Mr. Van Daan, Jonathan D. Mesisca as Mr. Dussel, Lisa Bostnar as Mrs. Van Daan, Isabelle Barbier as Anne, Ruthy Froch as Margot.  
Photo by Curt Henderson.

The play follows the four-person Frank household—Otto (Frank van Putten), Edith (Joni Weisfeld), Margo (Ruthy Froch) and Anne (Isabelle Barbier); three members of the Daan family—the mother (Lisa Bostnar), father (Allen Lewis Rickman), and their son (Alex Rafala); and a sardonic dentist (Jonathan Mesisca)—all Jews--as they live, secreted from the Nazis, in a hidden area in the Frank office building.  One employee, Mr. Kraler (Michael Enright) and a friend, Miep Gies (Elizabeth Simmons) are their only link to the outside world during Germany’s occupation of Holland.  In the small, cramped area they try to eke out some manner of normalcy during, what turns out to be, 1 ½ years of confinement.  At the center is Anne.  She is a precocious, inquisitive, and sometimes meddlesome teenager that is the spark that helps keep the group from becoming too despondent and hopeless during their time concealed from the world.  In her diary, she records the ebb and flow—the good and bad--of life within their undersized accommodations.  As time progresses, the hideaways settle into a routine, hoping to ride out the war safely.  Tragically, they are rooted out by a person unknown, and sent to concentration camps where all perish with only Otto surviving.
Isabelle Barbier as Anne in "The Diary of Anne Frank."  Photo by Curt Henderson.
Playwright Wendy Kesselman has incorporated new material from Frank’s diary as well as survivor accounts into the original work of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  The writers have taken this slice of history and created a work that shows how individuals persevere in times of incredible hardship.  They demonstrate how faith, along with the human spirit, can carry us through such trying and difficult times.  The characters are well-drawn within the confines of their mundane, everyday existence.  By putting the figure of Anne Frank at the helm the audience has a guiding beacon to carry us through the darkness of this era.  They balance Anne’s optimism and spirit with the practicality and steadfastness of her father Otto.  Their ying and yang allow for a consistent and satisfying dramatic arc.

The ten performers, a large troupe for Playhouse on Park, is superb.  It is led by Isabelle Barbier as Anne Frank.  The actress has an eerie resemblance to the real-life teenager.  She is full of spunk layered with the emotions of a young woman discovering herself and those around her.  Without such a dynamic performance, the show would simply not work.  Equally as important is Frank van Putten as Otto Frank.  His quiet demeanor and thoughtfulness belies the authority and respect that is entrusted to him.  The actor has an unwavering presence that steadies the performers through despondency, anger and excitement. The other cast members are equally as good.  They present well-rounded portrayals of human beings in crisis.  They are all astute and discerning depictions.
Frank van Putten as Otto Frankin in "The Diary of Anne Frank."  Photo by Curt Henderson.
Director Ezra Barnes guides a production that is intelligent and sensitively helmed.  He shows restraint, focusing, primarily, on the normalcy of the group, but deftly intersperses occasional emotional and heartfelt outbursts to heighten a realistic portrayal of the oppressive conditions. The interactions of the characters are well-orchestrated and even though we know the heartbreaking ending there is still a sustained and palpable suspense within the production.

Scenic designer David Lewis has done a masterful job creating the living quarters for the sequestered families.  The large set fills every available space of the stage, giving it a three-dimensional look and feel.  He gives understated separation to the various living quarters that are distinct, but unified at the same time.

The Diary of Anne Frank, worth the trip to Playhouse on Park.  Now, through November 19th.

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