It has been said that the power some plays possess emanates not from the writing or the acting but what the audience itself brings to the performance. That seems especially true with The Diary of Anne Frank, now at the Cleveland Play House.
Ever since the play debuted in 1955, only a decade after the end of World War II, people in the U.S. have encountered this material with a mixture of horror and relief. Horror at the barbaric actions of the Nazis in their dedication to rid the world of any Jewish presence, and relief that such heinous behavior on a grand scale had been relegated to the dim recesses of history.
Well that was then and then is now. As America stumbles haphazardly towards a fascist state under the Trumpian banner of white supremacy and free-floating bigotry, there are echoes of Nazi Germany everywhere you look. Except now, those echoes sound more like clarion calls as you watch this interesting production of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, as adapted by Wendy Kesselman.
As you enter the theater, you are confronted with rough-hewn boards and barbed wire (actually, artfully designed threads that look so real you have to touch them to believe they're not made of metal) that give you a sense of foreboding. Curiously, that bone-deep chill you receive upon entering is never quite matched during the remainder of the show.
One reason is that the excellent director Laura Kepley, CPH's artistic director, has decided to buff out some of the rougher edges of certain characters. This works splendidly in showing the tender and human sides of characters such as the usually unlikable Mr, and Mrs. Van Daan (Laura Perrotta and Bruce Winant) and crotchety Mr Dussel (Lee Wilkof), the dentist who shares Anne's bedroom. In addition, Yaron Lotan as young Peter Van Daan is endearing in his adolescent, clumsy attempts to connect with Anne.
But this interpretation by Kepley puts a softer focus on the eight occupants of the small, three-story annex in Amsterdam owned by the heroic Miep Gies. Clearly, living in such confinement for more than two years would drive anyone a bit nuts, even without the daily fear of being discovered by the Gestapo. And certainly, there are flashes of arguments between and among the four Franks, the three Van Daans and Dussel. But by airbrushing some feisty attitudes, we aren't presented with a fully three-dimensional sense of these people, making their ultimate fate land with less impact.
The script is understandably impressed by Anne's dad Otto Frank (Rick D. Wasserman), Gies (Amy Fritsche) and her associate Mr. Kraler (Tom Woodward), who keep this little tribe functioning for months on end, against all odds. Otto uses his wisdom and gentle touch to keep the peace inside, while Gies and Kraler bring in supplies and news from the outside.
As for the Frank women, Anne's mother Edith (Lise Bruneau) is properly wracked with fear mixed with quiet despair, and Anne's sister Margot (Sarah Cuneo) is passive and obedient. That stands in sharp contrast to sprightly Anne, played with energy and enthusiasm by Annie Fox, who throws herself around these rooms and often at other people in mini-explosions of Anne's irrepressible girlish spirit.
However, one is always aware that Fox is actually about a decade older than the 13-year-old Anne. Too often, Fox the theater-toned actor seems more present than Anne, the vulnerable, skittish, and profoundly compassionate young girl. Fox speaks in the voice of a grown woman (and happily avoids any possible temptation to impersonate a 13-year-old's vocal quality). But the sense of Anne as a fragile child just entering her teenage years is unfortunately missing. In the original stage production a 17-year-old Susan Strasberg played Anne, and one would think a teenage actor could handle this task.
As you gaze down on the scenic design by Robert Mark Morgan, where the rooms of the annex are arrayed like a live blueprint, you are aware of the cramped quarters. However the layout of the Outcalt Theatre, featuring steeply raked seating that surrounds most of the stage, tends to pull the audience away from connecting with the actors' faces. This is a bit frustrating in this play, which is so personal in both its dimension and intent.
Setting quibbles aside, The Diary of Anne Frank feels fresher and more relevant now than at any time in recent history. At one moment in the play, on Dec. 31 of their second year in self-imposed captivity, Edith says, "I remember when a New Year was worth looking forward to."
And suddenly, you realize that a New Year's celebration is bearing down on us, bringing with it the prospect of 365 more days of challenges to our teetering democracy. That is, if we haven't already been "suffused with an incandescent glow" (Tom Lehrer, circa 1959) of nuclear war. We are all trapped in a secret annex of Donald Trump's fevered brain, and there may be no way out.