Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Anne and her family were Jews who lived in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. They went into hiding with another family in the attic space above her father's factory. The play is based on "The Diary of a Young Girl," the journal Anne kept when she was 13 and living in the attic, which was published shortly after her death. The play covers the two-year time period they were in hiding. Originally written in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, the play was further adapted by Wendy Kesselman in 1997 to add elements that Anne's father thought best to originally leave out. Those diary entries, concerning Anne's less than kind thoughts about her mother and her feelings on her budding post-pubescent sexuality, have been restored in Kesselman's version without sacrificing any of the frayed emotions of eight people living in such close quarters, the constant fear of being discovered, and the dramatic intrigue of the original play.
Director M. Seth Reines has done an exceptional job. His staging heightens the tension by creating realistic movement that allows the bickering and quarreling to grow naturally from the situations yet also instills the proceedings with the hope that the war will end and their lives will go back to normal. Through his staging, the last two scenes are filled with emotion. Reines has also found an exemplary cast to bring this heartbreaking tale to life. Sarah Pansing is simply sensational as Anne. The excitement she portrays when they first move into the attic, as if it's like being on an adventurous vacation, and the shifting thoughts and feelings Anne experiences as her body changes, are portrayed superbly. When the realism of the situation comes to light Pansing also effectively projects the understanding of Anne's situation. The only issue I can find is that Pansing is slightly older than Anne was at the time the family was in hiding. Other than that very small quibble, there isn't one false move, gesture, or expression in her performance.
Otto Frank is the realist, matter of fact, quiet, and loving disciplinarian, and Rob Stuart's performance is as even measured as the man he is portraying. You feel the love Otto has for his wife and two daughters, but don't miss how he is trying to put things in as positive a light as possible even though the fear of being found is always present. It is an appropriately restrained portrayal but Stuart's final monologue delivery is an emotional mind numbing experience that packs a wallop.
The rest of the cast make a well-honed ensemble of distinguished and rich performances that require constant interactions with and reactions to the other characters, since every actor is on stage almost throughout the entire play. As Otto's wife Edith, Bonnie Beus Romney shows, with just a few expressive gestures, the hurt Edith feels when Anne draws away from her, but we also never question the unconditional love she has for her two daughters and Otto. Molly Jisa is equally as good as Anne's sister Margot. It is a less flashy role, yet Jisa infuses it with a quiet modesty that is a nice counterpoint to the energetic Anne.
Wayne Peck and Ami Porter are well matched as the constantly bickering van Daans, the family that shares the space with the Franks and had helped Otto out when he first came to town. Nicholas Gunnell is extremely likable as their son Peter, and he and Pansing generate the right amount of heat in their romantic scenes together. Fred Gerle is appropriately sweet yet irritable as Dussell, the dentist who also goes into hiding with the families. In smaller parts, Kellie Dunlap and Matthew Cary inject warmth and a reserved level of optimism as the two people who help the families.
Brian Daily's set design perfectly instills the sense of claustrophobia that having so many people living in such a small space creates. Mary Atkinson's costumes are smart and period appropriate and the evocative lighting design by Jeff A. Davis affords the appropriate shifts in tone as well as the various times of day in the play. Sound designer Danny Karapetian adds perfect effects that heighten the moments when a strange noise or booming siren could mean they will be discovered.
With Reines' excellent direction, Pansing's rich performance as Anne, and an entire cast that embody their roles with a deep clarity, Hale's The Diary of Anne Frank is a deeply moving and emotional experience. Even if you know how Anne's story ends, this production should warrant a visit to be reminded of Anne and how her diary represents so many other people who lived in fear but always had the hope that freedom would eventually come, even if it never did.
The Hale Centre Theatre production of The Diary of Anne Frank runs through May 14th, 2016, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181
Directed by M. Seth Reines