The Diary of Anne Frank is the pre- Judy Blume bible for 13 year-old girls. It’s also the paragon depiction of Holocaust life, a hallowed text taught to witless schoolchildren, who in this time, would rather text message their friends, than understand why a precocious German girl has such a hold over their homework load. Count me as one of the witless, as I’ve somehow managed to avoid the text my entire life.
Of course, I’ve also managed to avoid Moby Dick, most of Dickens etc.. And this would be fine, were I a drunken starlet or an actuary. But I am a writer, who hones his craft at the altar of his betters. And certainly Frank, Melville, and Dickens know more than I.
Still I’m not a complete yokel. As with any touchstone, these stories pervade our cultural consciousness. I’m aware of the Pequod and Ahab, as if I sailed as a deckhand. And certainly I know about the Frank and Van Daan families, shuttered away in their annex in Amsterdam, avoiding capture by Nazis. In fact, as I stepped in to the theatre to watch the Steppenwolf revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, I kinda thought I knew it all.
The reality though, is that 60 years later, with the last of the Holocaust survivors passing on, my generation really knows very little. Sure, there’s been Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and any number of modern features to remind us. But, television or movies can sometimes be like a snow globe, a story encapsulated in glass viewed at a fantastical distance.
In contrast, Steppenwolf’s dramatic revival of The Diary Anne Frank, as directed by Tina Landau, has yielded a production filled with a realistic immediacy that at its worst makes you learn, and at its best, makes you weep. Landau’s commitment to the play had her visiting the annex in Amsterdam to see the actual lighting, the emotional spirit of, and the actual view from the historical space.
There seems to be a payoff in the research, as the set designed by Richard Hoover and lighted by Scott Zielinski, honors the spartan and harsh circumstances of the Frank’s and Van Daan’s confinement. In fact it’s so successful, that the production turned my gaze outward and I realized that the Steppenwolf theatre architecture itself, with its poured concrete base, cinder block walls, and iron balconies, looks a lot like a concentration camp.
The most striking lesson, which comes through the actors’ performances, is that no matter how horrible things get, our basic humanity prevails. The members of the annex are still beholden to the trivialities of life. Claire Elizabeth Saxe, as Anne, is a hopeful thirteen year-old girl obsessed with kissing boys, hugging cats, and rousing mischief. Her roommate, the cantankerous Mr. Dussel, as played by Alan Wilder, disdains this childish mischief. Yasen Peyankov as Otto Frank, is the compassionate patriarch, home schooling the children of the annex and protecting their right to be children. Mr. and Mrs. Vandaan, (Francis Guinan and Kathy Scambiaterra) quarrel constantly as any other married folk would. Guinan in particular, who is continually miffed by his wife, is very effective. He triumphs with a pathetic display when his character is discovered stealing bread at the expense of his roommates.
As mentioned, Saxe turns in a very believable performance as Anne Frank. I’ve found that many young actors tend to emotionally overplay, and if there is any criticism of the performances, it’s that Saxe at times, seems aware of this tendency, and there’s the occasional feeling that she’s working hard to rein in her performance.
This production is an ant’s farm view of life unfolding during the Holocaust, and as such Landau has made a magnificent directorial decision, in that during the intermission, while the audience is free to mingle in the lobby, the cast remains on stage. They continue their confinement, dressing, sleeping, talking, and at one point, which I found humorous, Anne’s love interest and childhood companion, Peter Van Daan, (Mark Buenning) does arm curls with a chair.
As we all know, the Nazis must come. And when they do, the power of Nazi symbolism and the presence of the German speaking actors is so alienating and immediate, that what until now has been a very good dramatic reinterpretation of life events, is transformed into something very real. This is where a live play triumphs over the movies, and why Chicagoans must go see this play. The liveliness of the theatre and the flesh and blood actors remind us of the lessons of the Holocaust more than any movie or book ever will.
The Diary of Anne Frank runs through June 10 in Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre. Tickets can be reserved by calling 312-335-1650 or going online at www.steppenwolf.org.
This article first appeared on centerstagechicago.com