The impromptu prank is none too elaborate. But when a 13-year-old girl swaggers out of a room in a too-large boy’s coat and proceeds to impishly spoof a male walk, speaking in a low gruff macho voice, the comedy hits its mark. There’s not much competition for levity in this Amsterdam office annex, the hiding spot for a group of Jews during World War II. What really gives the gag brio, though, is the jokester herself: She’s so animated, in facial expression and gesture, and seems so attuned to the possibilities of the moment.
In the title role, Carolyn Faye Kramer is a gift to a seamless and moving production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Olney Theatre Center. The convincingly young-looking actress conjures up an Anne whose obvious intelligence, optimism and high spirits are anchored by streaks of stubbornness and pragmatism. Soon after entering the claustrophobic annex that will confine her for the foreseeable future, this energetic teenager can’t help giving a little jump of excitement. Not long afterwards, she’s lampooning her housemate Peter van Daan (Alex Alferov) with the help of his coat.
Kramer’s performance registers vividly in the intimacy of Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab space. While capitalizing on that intimacy, director Derek Goldman expertly balances the demands of focus, narrative and naturalism. There’s a clear, constant sense of all the different relationships and tensions that fill the annex. At the same time, the play’s moments of intensity always stand out, without distraction from background activity.
And there are, needless to say, many moments of intensity. Written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and adapted by Wendy Kesselman, “The Diary of Anne Frank” tells of the Frank family’s efforts to endure, and maybe even achieve some normalcy, during the two-plus years they’re in hiding. The Franks share the annex with another desperate family, the van Daans, as well as a later arrival, Mr. Dussel. (As Olney artistic director Jason Loewith aptly points out in a playbill note, the play feels especially resonant given the xenophobia that has cropped up in the United States and other Western countries recently in the face of a major refugee crisis.)
Unfurling on a two-level furnished-garret set, designed by Misha Kachman, the production gives a sense of distinctive lives, as well as distinctive conflicts that wax and wane. With the exception of her patient, stoical father (an excellent Paul Morella), the irrepressible Anne regularly irks almost everyone, including Mr. Dussel (Michael Russotto), the often-waspish Mr. van Daan (Eric Hissom, adding welcome humor) and Mrs. van Daan (a fine Susan Rome, who displays the character’s solipsism and vulnerability).
Brigid Cleary and Dani Stoller signal the quiet suffering of Edith and Margot Frank, Anne’s mother and sister, respectively. Kimberly Schraf channels the determination of Miep Gies, who ferries essentials to the annex residents. At one point, Miep shows up with a tiny spice cake; the residents divide the pastry into eight slivers and consume it in ecstatic bites.
Matthew M. Nielson’s sound design, which includes unsettling echoes of Nazi rallies, serves as a reminder of the horrors going on in the world beyond the annex, news of which regularly filters inside. The sound, together with Zach Blane’s lighting, contribute to this production’s particularly harrowing climax and coda. Thanks in part to Anne’s hopeful voice, this “Anne Frank” is often lively, funny and life-affirming, but it doesn’t shrink from devastating bleakness.
The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Directed by Derek Goldman; costume design, David Burdick; projection designers, Kelly Colburn and Mark Costello. With Edward Christian and Jesse Milliner. About 2 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets: $45-$70. Through Oct. 23 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org.