Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=34471
Story Retrieval Date: 5/19/2013 3:43:42 AM CST
Courtesy of Michael Brosilow, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
The stage is large at the understated but respectably-sized Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre. On Tuesday night, though, Claire Elizabeth Saxe managed to fill up every inch of it as Anne Frank, skipping, dancing and bouncing off the walls of the attic that threatened to enclose her.
For this centerpiece of Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s spring season, director Tina Landau has mounted Wendy Kesselman’s adaptation of the classic book, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” This is the beloved Jewish teenager as you’ve never seen her before. A far cry from the original stage adaptation done in 1954 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett that painted Anne as an angelic victim, Kesselman’s 1997 version has recast Anne in a more complex and realistic light. The transformation makes her even more lovable to a modern, saccharine-averse audience.
Artistic Director Martha Lavey answered the question looming in most people’s minds head-on in the playbill’s liner notes: Why is this play relevant now? “The last generation of Holocaust survivors is upon us,” she wrote, and firsthand accounts of the Holocaust are quickly slipping from our grasp.
The appeal of “The Diary of Anne Frank” has always been its unique ability to put a face on an incomprehensible horror through the story of a Dutch girl, her family and several other Jews hiding in an attic during the Nazi occupation of Holland. Under the direction of veteran ensemble member Landau, Anne has morphed into a whip-smart, brash, sometimes irritating girl obsessed with fashion and movie stars. But she also spends hours creating homemade Hanukkah gifts for everyone else in the attic from scraps lying around their hiding place. She’s a thoroughly modern girl, and one many of us might know. That sense of familiarity gives this version of the play its tremendous wallop.
The production also allows the Jewish identity at the heart of the story to shine, instead of treating it as a mere detail that has forced the Franks into hiding. An extended Hanukkah prayer scene and a fervent promise from Anne that she will never turn her back on her faith give the play an added cultural resonance. We are reminded that the themes of the Holocaust, in some ways, are not so distant from the struggles caused by religious persecution today.
Everything about Anne, though, contradicts the perception of her as a victim, and she manages to find little luxuries in the middle of destitution throughout the play. Saxe did an admirable job inhabiting Anne’s enormous persona, combining a naïve, girlish air with Anne’s larger-than-life quality. Anne ate sticky strawberries, tottered around the attic in high heels and basked in the “sweet secret” of discovering her sexuality.
She also envisioned her diary as the launch pad for her stardom, thrilled by an announcement from the Dutch Minister of Education that Holland will be publishing personal accounts of the war. In Anne’s mind, the world was a stage waiting for her to take her place as prima donna, a childish view made more poignant by the end that Anne did not realize was coming.
The other characters in “Diary” mainly orbited like satellites around Anne's star, but there were moments when we glimpsed their own struggles as well. Yasen Peyankov, as Otto Frank, displayed a stunning tenderness and patience for his wife and daughters, and his special bond with Anne made for a sweet moment when he comforted her after a nightmare. Carolyn Faye Kramer and Gail Shapiro played Margot and Edith Frank as fragile porcelain dolls, perfect foils to Kathy Scambiatterra’s overbearing and shallow Mrs. Van Daan. As 16-year-old Peter, Mark Buenning captured the awkward first blush of romance, his shy character devoured whole by Anne, who clearly wears the pants in their budding relationship.
Like the Frank family, we always knew that the end was coming, but it was still a shocking surprise when three Gestapo officers silently ascended the staircase leading to the attic and rudely ripped Anne and her companions from their makeshift home. When Otto Frank returned to the attic alone, slowly picking up Anne’s abandoned diary and cradling it like a jewel, the memory of that sweet, incessant chatterbox filled the silence with despair.
"The Diary of Anne Frank"
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
1650 N. Halsted