Watching "The Diary of Anne Frank" at the Round House Theatre the other night, I recalled how powerful and moving the play had been the first time I saw it.
Then I remembered that that first viewing, at a community theater, occurred when I was 12 years old.
This play, based on the diary of a Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis for two years in a garret in Amsterdam, has been superseded by a greater communal consciousness. It is not just that I am older; the world is older, and the hideous events of the Holocaust that killed Anne Frank and so many others have been documented and dramatized so graphically by others that this play now seems sanitized and cute almost to the point of being offensive. Anne Frank's diary remains a classic; the dramatization of it does not survive the same test of time.
When the wife-and-husband team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett first turned the diary into a play -- they started work in 1953 and the play opened in 1955 -- the details of Hitler's atrocities were still barely being assimilated by the generation that fought the war. Although there were a few early documentaries recording the liberation of the death camps and the postwar Nuremberg trials, it would take another generation to examine, in fact and in fiction, what happened to Hitler's victims and the survivors. And, despite a number of movies ranging from "Judgment at Nuremberg" (1961) to "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (1971), it was not until the 1977 television series "The Holocaust" that the subject truly reached the masses, sparking a new wave of creative renderings.
In the context of 1955, the story of Anne Frank, an ebullient little girl who embraced life and was cruelly deprived of it, offered a handle on the enormity of the horror. Her diary, a chronicle of daily life in hiding and the emotional surges of an adolescent, also contained the hopeful note the 1950s required: Despite all that had happened to her, Anne remained an optimist who believed she would have a glorious future, who thought that "the world is going through a phase" and "people are really good at heart."
Those thoughts were penned, of course, before she was shipped off to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. There is no written record of what she thought of humanity in the few months that remained of her life.
Now that we know what probably happened to Anne, and her mother and sister, how they were starved, and made to live like cattle, this play about her days in hiding seems pallid and falsely cozy. Director Jim Petosa has made no concessions to time, presenting the play to us as though it was still 1955. Handed a script full of cliches, he challenged none of them and then added more.
Perhaps only the most brilliant production could convince us that "The Diary of Anne Frank" should not be placed, respectfully, on the shelf. It would have to be a production that allowed us to feel what it was really like for eight people to share a few tiny rooms for more than two years, to smell the unwashed clothes and bodies, to know how it felt to be unable to use the toilet between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. (to avoid noise that would alert the workers below). Their clothes should grow looser as they become thin on poor rations and their skin more pale from never being outdoors. Only in the closing moments of this production does it get close to the sense of doom that should pervade the whole play, as the "green police" start banging on the door and the hunted Jews cling together in despair and terror.
Petosa's choice of the actress to play Anne is the first indication of how completely uncomprehending the director is of the resonances this play sounds today. Carolyn Pasquantonio is the right size -- small -- but in other respects she looks like Disney's Snow White and plays Anne as though she meant to be playing "Annie." Yes, the script tells us that Anne Frank was a restless, energetic, even giddy child, but need she be hyperactive? Pasquantonio is hardly ever at rest, frolicking brightly and ever-so-cutely from one side of the stage to the other. She flops (loudly) onto furniture, she pivots, she makes adorable little faces, she flings her legs over her head (revealing her underwear to the middle-aged dentist who has arrived to share her tiny room, an inappropriate gesture to say the least). And she kneels and sits on her heels, a cliche posture for teens that no one aside from a few acrobats has ever stayed in for more than a second. The only advantage to this antic performance is that when the dentist (Irv Ziff) begs her to be quiet and settle down, his lines are especially convincing.
It is only with her father, played with affecting sweetness by James Slaughter, that this Anne becomes a real child with yearnings and terrible fears. Their relationship is tender and honest, the younger daughter clinging to the omnipotent papa she will always measure other men by. This relationship is not inconsequential to the play, but it alone cannot save the evening.
When the families in hiding have a small Hanukkah celebration it feels as authentic as a Hallmark card. Only Ziff, Slaughter and two others -- Sarah Lyman as Anne's sister, Margot, and Jason Kravits as the boy Peter -- have any of that hard-to-define sense of Jewishness, of a cultural and tribal identity that makes them special. This is an acting challenge that only these four meet.
When you look again at this crew, glued together by fate, they seem an unusually unattractive bunch, at least as portrayed here. There are the two Van Daans: He (Harry A. Winter) is greedy, selfish, a food thief, a mean father; she (Kathleen Goldpaugh) is superficial, venal and stupid. Dussell, the dentist, is querulous, neurotic and self-centered, although Ziff manages to add a human dimension to his foibles. Mama Frank (Barbara Pinolini, in a particularly amateurish performance) is a stock martyr, bearing all the household burdens (her husband handles the cosmic ones) in benevolent silence. When she does break out in righteous wrath against the food pilfering Van Daan, it is a shrill lecture she quickly regrets. Even Margot, played with thoughtful sensitivity by Lyman, is too docile to seem real.
If character is forged in the fire of adversity, then these actors show no traces of being singed. Anne, her father, and the Van Daans' son Peter, on the other hand, grow in strength and wisdom during their ordeal (or are supposed to). Pasquantonio calms down a little for the latter half of the play, but she is still coy and lacking in depth. Kravits, as Peter, is by turns touchingly awkward and lonely, reaching out tentatively to the lively Anne as they make a bond of youth and hope. His gentle, painstaking performance shows how even a cliche can be infused with new life.
In his program note, Petosa suggests that one reason to revive this work is to understand antisemitism, or to hear "a cry from inside an existential nightmare." Righteous goals, no doubt, but ones better addressed by other plays.
The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on "Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl." Directed by Jim Petosa. Set by Jane Williams Flank, lighting by Neil McFadden, costumes by Rosemary Pardee, sound by Dan Schrader, properties by Kathleen Wolfrey. With James Slaughter, Kathryn Chase Bryer, Kathleen Goldpaugh, Harry A. Winter, Jason Kravits, Barbara Pinolini, Sarah Lyman, Carolyn Pasquantonio, Robert DeFrank, and Irv Ziff. At the Round House Theatre through Dec. 16.