Is anyone more review-proof than Anne Frank? The story of her short life, related in the Holocaust classic "The Diary of Anne Frank," no longer belongs to the world of thumbs up and thumbs down. Sitting through the play is like attending a worship service. At least that is what it feels like to me: a prayer for the dead.
Round House Theatre has revived the play, in an aptly sensitive and sharply paced production directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. The actress playing Anne, Lea Michele, delivers a lovely performance, infused with the kind of explosive adolescent energy that a schoolgirl hermetically sealed off from the world would have difficulty containing.
"Anne Frank" is a fine, human-scale introduction to a story of unfathomable complexity, and since every generation should be exposed to Anne's tale, this is an especially good show for older kids. But if you've seen it before and are on the fence about going again, don't feel guilty about giving it a pass. This new production, although performed with an engaging naturalism, doesn't rise to the level of revelation.
The drama, which had its premiere on Broadway nearly 50 years ago, was originally adapted by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett from the now-famous diary Anne kept in the Amsterdam annex where she and seven others hid until their discovery and arrest by the Gestapo. This production, emulating the 1998 Broadway revival with Natalie Portman, uses a text with new material from the diaries compiled by Wendy Kesselman.
The adaptation does not radically alter the play, an account, narrated by Anne herself, of the terrifying period she spent cooped up with her family and a few others, waiting in vain for the Allies to save them. Taichman's production is keenly attuned to the discordant music of living in limbo, the nerve-fraying trials of sharing cramped quarters, sparse meals and uncertain fates. The idea of being trapped is reinforced even during intermission, when the cast remains onstage and in character. Actors such as Rick Foucheux, playing the quarrelsome and childish Van Daan, and Mitchell Hebert, as the peevish, skittish Dussel, are especially good at what the story calls for, conveying the magnifying effect forced confinement has on one's tics of personality.
James Kronzer's overly elaborate set, with its transparent walls and vast attic, feels a bit too expansive to evoke the claustrophobic experience Anne recounts. (Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting design, on the other hand, fills the theater with a sense of impending doom.) But Taichman coaxes from the actors themselves the sense of the walls closing in. When, for instance, Anne's older sister, Margot (Bess Rous), suddenly breaks into uncontrollable sobs, or Foucheux's Van Daan humiliates himself by stealing extra rations from the bread bin, the stage is suffused with the air of collective desperation.
That the drama is based on truth makes it all the harder to bear: Everyone in the hidden household, except for Anne's father, Otto, died at the hands of the Nazis. The moment that the Franks and the Van Daans are marched out of their hiding place is one of enduring agony.
But it is in a category of image that has been replayed countless times -- and many of them more powerfully -- in documentaries and dramas in the years since the play's debut. This, in a sense, has neutralized some of "Anne Frank's" urgency.
Michele's portrayal is admirable; with the help of Kesselman's script, she allows you to see Anne as a teenager, not a saint, and the cast Round House has assembled around her is a strong one. Peter Stadlen is an excellent Peter Van Daan, the older boy who stirs Anne's desires, and Sherri L. Edelen is effective as Mrs. Van Daan, who is a more sympathetic figure here than the panicky loudmouth she's often made out to be. Gary Sloan has one of the tougher assignments in playing Otto, who seems impossibly noble and patient. (Perhaps tellingly, he's the one who discovered the diaries and ushered them to publication.) As Anne and Margot's mother, Edith, Kathryn Kelley is a gentle presence, although her performance, too, is at times hindered by perfect parent syndrome.
This "Diary of Anne Frank" will personalize the Holocaust most profoundly for those few who are new to her story. For everyone else, it will feel like very familiar territory.
The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Costumes, Rosemary Pardee; sound, Martin Desjardins. With Jewel Orem, John Lescault, David Paul Mosedale, Michael Propster, Kyle Magley. Through Dec. 12 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.