By James V. Ruocco
The German occupation of Holland.....The persecution of the Jews...The secret annex...The hiding place...The Frank family...The Van Daan family...Albert Dussel....The diary...The nightmares....The cries in the night...The discovery...The capture...The separation.
"The Diary of Anne Frank" is a story that has survived the testament of time. It is a powerful reminder of the Holocaust and all its horrors. It is also a story of hope, survival and awakening that demands to be told and must be told again and again.
Using passages from the actual diary, mixed with dialogue created for the stage and big, dramatic sound effects that eerily spring to life, director Lucia Defilippis Dressel's "The Diary of Anne Frank" is an amazing, compassionate, intelligently staged body of work that respects, understands and embraces the original work without any rose-tinted edges, consequences or contributions. And, that in itself, is reason enough to applaud her, the distinguished 13-member-cast and the lead performance of 12-year-old Lexi White, an actress of extraordinary, enormous range whose performance is so rich and natural, it would make the real Anne Frank excited and proud. And probably, Peter Van Daan, as well.
This is a production that doesn't rest on the laurels of Wendy Kesselman's shortened, briskly-paced adaptation of the original three-hour Frances Goodrich/Albert Hackett play text. Instead, it recalls the events of a young girl's diary, using very carefully-guided research, intimate stokes, colors and nuances that cry historical fidelity and not the cheap, broad theatrics you'd find on the stages of other community theaters across the state.
Dressel, an accomplished actress, director and auteur would have none of that. Her "Anne Frank" is multi-faceted and complex. Here, you get a cinematic, almost documentary-like take on life in the annex and the people who inhabit it as witnessed by the real Anne Frank. Some, of it, of course, is dramatized by the playwright for stage purposes, but, nonetheless, respectful of the diary and the teenaged girl who fights with her parents, talks too loud and often dreams of romance.
One of the biggest differences of this "Anne Frank" vs. other incarnations of the piece, is Dressel's decision to open up the production beyond the proscenium wall. Here, actors enter and exit through various doors of the theater or down the aisles past the audience. The actual hiding place, its entrance and the bookcase that hides its passageway, is effectively utilized by Dressel throughout the production.
In turn, the play's evolution adapts a voyeuristic, three-dimensional process that thrusts the audience...head first...into the ongoing action, conflicts and exchanges. Watching "Anne Frank," one is made to feel as if they are peering through a window watching real-life people live their day-to-day lives.
The climax of the play....Nazi soldiers discover the hiding place and remove the frightened characters from the building...is a stoke of genius on Dressel's part. Here, one by one, the characters are taken off the stage, down the stairs and gradually yanked apart from one another .....a painful, disturbing separation of sorts that elicits cries and screams from the characters ...and leaves you emotionally shaken.
If this "Anne Frank" clicks with its audience, it is largely due to Dressel's exceptional casting of the actors who bring the story so vividly to life. Yes, they are all performers: some seasoned vets; others brand new to the stage. But never once are you reminded of that. Instead, they are the real deal. They are are the true inhabitants of the actual hiding place hoping for survival, but living in fear that one day they will be discovered.
In Johnny Revicki, Dressel has found a very compassionate, focused actor to portray Otto Frank, the father of Anne and Margot Frank. He gives full illumination to the part, always communicating the dangers and difficulties of living in closed quarters completely cut off from the outside world. His Otto is a leader of sorts, but not without the understanding, the sympathy and heroism the part calls for. His final speech at the end of Act II, a brilliant, acting moment where Frank reveals the fate of everyone in the play, is profound, beautiful and truly magnificent.
The beguiling, enigmatic Lexi White, doesn't play the part of Anne Frank. She owns it. Her portrayal is raw, illuminating, exciting, emotional and honest. She also humanizes the part, which, is essential to the success of the piece and Anne's part in the telling of the now-famous story. Her interaction with everyone on stage is absolutely remarkable. It's the performance of the year and one you'll be talking about for quite some time. Acting is White's calling. Make no mistake about it. She loves it. She is passionate about it. And one day, you'll get to see her perform on Broadway. Yes, really.
Suzanne Powers brings just the right amount of emotional strength, passion and honesty to the part of Edith Frank, Anne's mother. Whether interacting with the onstage characters or quietly standing there in silence, observing, reacting or thinking, she always knows what buttons to push. She is an amazing talent with an emotional range comparable to that of Juliet Stevenson, Sheridan Smith and Laura Linney.
Casey McKenna and Dianna Waller are perfectly cast as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. They have great stage presence. They are perfectly in sync with the material, the drama, its edge and their role in the progression of the story. The same applies to the wonderfully charismatic Bret B. Bisallion who plays the part of Mr. Dussell, the cynical dentist who is forced to share Anne's room in the hiding place. He is "spot on" throughout.
Joshua J. Gogol, as Peter Van Daan, the young man with whom Anne discovers love and gets her first real kiss (a tender and playful moment that Dressel wisely reinvents by moving the action from the attic to a very noticeable downstage playing area), affectively captures his character's angst, frustration, confusion and budding curiosity about the opposite sex. It's a very natural, genuine performance. In fact, Gogol's portrayal is far surperior to that of Jonathan Kaplan who starred opposite Natalie Portman in the bittersweet 1997 Broadway revival.
As Margot Frank, Jenny Dressel brings a profound resonance to the part of Margot Frank, Anne's sister. It's a very spirited portrayal. Even when she's just sitting there listening or reacting, we always know what she's thinking.
Amy Kopchik and Dennis Walsh are especially gratifying as Meip Gies and Mr. Kraler, the two friends from downstairs responsible for the hiding and caring of the "Anne Frank" characters during their two years of confinement in the annex.
"The Diary of Anne Frank' is being staged by Landmark Community Theatre at the Thomaston Opera House (158 Main St., Thomaston, CT), now through April 2.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 283-8558.