Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's recent review of Major Barbara
There is a sense of solemnity and anticipation among the audience even before the lights go down and come back up on a family of four wearing winter coats with yellow Stars of David, suitcases in hand and looks of shock in their eyes. But suddenly a young teenage girl breaks away from her family and bounces throughout the small abode, soon declaring that this is going to be "like a vacation." And for a while, we forget the family's eventual demise as we settle down to watch The Diary of Anne Frank emerge from the pages on which the Anne in front of us diligently writes. Palo Alto Players presents the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for Drama by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackettfurther adapted in 1977 after more of Anne's original diary was published by Wendy Kesselmanin a superbly directed production with an ensemble of actors who pull us into the individual and collective stories in ways that shake us to our very core.
Through the lens of this young girl's eyes, we watch everyday moments of the next two-plus years (July 6, 1942, until August 4, 1944) that she chose to capture in her secret journal about the lives of the eight Jews hidden away in a secret annex of her father's former office. Two families and an additional single man spend each day during normal working hours in sock feet, not talking, barely movingwaiting for the nearby church bell to ring six times, telling them the workers below have gone home and giving them a few hours to exist as normally as possible within their close-quarter confines. During those hours, stories are shared, meager meals of beans and potatoes are cooked, arguments erupt, insults spill out, and feelings are hurt; and dreams of being once again free lift spirits for a few minutes. And nightly, "the sun begins to shine" (in Anne's words) when Miep Gies (Clara Caruthers Reese) arrives to bring some library books, what food she can scrounge, a cigarette or two, and most importantly, news of what is happening on the Amsterdam streetsnews that only seems to get worse and worse. And yet through it all, a young girl does all she can to shake off her cares and think herself out of it, describing to us with some cheekiness the quirkiness and funny habits of those around her or with full teen righteousness, the particularly irritating, frustrating things about everyone from her mother to the male dentist with whom she must share her tiny room.
Roneet Aliza Rahamim displays the full range of emotion and physical outbursts of the always curious, often impatient, and forever-optimistic teenager. That Ms. Rahamim is not thirteen herself but rather thirty-one is shocking and difficult to believe, for she totally pulls off the glazed-over stares, the sudden pouts, the frenzied energy, the adoring mannerisms, and the uncensored remarks that so define Anne at the age when a girl is not quite child and not yet adult. That she also physically looks like she could be somewhere between thirteen in the play's beginning and fifteen at its end is remarkable and a tribute to her as an actor.
Like many teenage girls, Anne rejects her mother, fawns on her father, and has eyes and well-calculated plans for a certain boy just a couple years older. She also finds ways, sometimes, to endear herself, but more often to make herself a royal pain when it comes to the other three adults in the cramped quarters. Anne makes us laugh, causes us to cringe, and leaves us shaking our heads in disapprovaljust like any normal teen of that age might do. The sudden joy beaming from her entire countenance after seeing a few clouds or catching a glimpse of the moon through the attic windows is contagious for us as audience, if not always for her those around her who may just roll their eyes or try to ignore her perpetual bounciness. But when her mood does cloud over ("All the fear I've ever felt is looming before me in all its horror"), the shift in Anne's outlook is starkly evident in Ms. Rahamim's eyes and now-so-still body.
Anne has two main targets for her greatest affection: her father, Otto, and Peter Van Daan, son of the couple who has joined them in their hiding. Vic Prosak is the embodiment of "always the soul of politeness" as Otto Frank, calm but diligently on the watch of how best to protect those other seven under his care from creeping worries, from petty fighting, or from sudden irrationality (like wanting to bolt from the attic to the dangerous outside). Mr. Prosak's Otto is the kind of man one might pass on the sidewalk and decide to smile at as if he were a friend just because he has a trusting, friendly nature baked into his eyes and slight smile and because he exudes inner strength.
Quiet and quick to escape to the room's shadows (or behind the door of his tiny room) is Peter, who at first rejects approaches by the more outgoing Anne, calling her "Mrs. Quack Quack" and refusing for two months even to talk to her one-on-one. Anthony Stephens excellently portrays this shy boy who slowly begins to notice how Anne keeps looking at him and who finally decides to venture to her room to talk. The friendship and blossoming love the two develop is indicated by Mr. Stephens' Peter gradually loosening up and raising his slumped shoulders to a surer posture, by his showing more of his feelings in sudden grins and cocked head, and by his revealing with some eagerness and new intensity to Anne the hopes and fears embodied deep in his over-sized frame.
Anne's older sister Margot (sensitively portrayed by Megan Bartlett) is a girl who does not seem to mind playing second fiddle to the more outgoing Anne and one generous in her love and support of the younger sister. Kelly Rinehart presents an emotionally complicated, often troubled and scared, but very believable Edith Frank, Anne's mother. Margot and Edith together have an evident visceral and visible bond as well as similar, shared insecurities that contrast to the more confident and outgoing similarities that Otto and Anne share in their close father/daughter pairing.
Helping round out the confined household are the two Van Daan parents. Shawn Bender is the usually sullen and always complaining Mr. Van Daanquick to be irritated when it comes to Anne and oft to argue in shouting matches with his wife, especially when the latter is prone to reminding him he is not the kind, attractive, well-regarded man that Mr. Frank is. Mrs. Van Daan (Rachel Michelberg) dresses each day as if about to go out on the streets of Amsterdam, often hugging her beloved fur coat to glean all the memories it holds of much better days of the past. Ms. Michelberg is superb, bringing to life a fastidious, fashionable woman who mushes together her fears, foibles, and frivolities into a person who comes to full life via Anne's descriptions and the actor's skills.
And not escaping Anne's tell-all diary is certainly her reluctant roomie, the dentist Mr. Dussel who had to leave his non-Jewish wife behind as he rushed to escape deportation. Tom Bleecker plays this quirky man who craves privacy in a setting where none can be found, who bursts into whiny complaints often enough, but who also is outwardly grateful for the spot of temporary safety he has found due to all their generosity.
Dennis Lickteig directs this outstanding ensemble with an eye toward exposing and honoring their shared humanity, tensions, faults, and of course, fears. The mundanity and boredom of the confinement is clearly allowed to surface as well as the moments of genuine joy and of utter fright. Taking the well-crafted script built on the foundation of Anne's diary, Mr. Lickteig orchestrates a story that is fully engrossing, often hopeful, and ultimately shattering.
Lickteig's directorial efforts and the skills of the cast are supported by the very realistic setting designed by Kuo-Hao Lo, where little is left to our imagination of how it must have felt to move about and live in such a make-shift, boxed-in, attic home. The lighting of Selina G. Young accentuates the closed-off feel of the shuttered setting, with its less-lit corners and poorly lit atmosphere in general. Shannon Maxham contributes a wardrobe that ably and convincingly fits the historic times and the individual personalities. Jeff Grafton's sound design is outstanding as news broadcasts of BBC, outbursts of Hitler himself, and soothing music emerge from the nightly radio; but his skills particularly ring forth in the closing, heart-breaking moments as we all listen to the approaching Nazi soldiers breaking through the doors downstairs.
The daily musings of a young girl in the midst of hell on earth has helped subsequent generations around the globe put a face and a personality on one of the six million massacred by Hitler. Perhaps the most haunting line from her diary is one she wrote on March 29, 1944: "I want to go on living even after my death!" Palo Alto Players helps ensure Anne Frank is still very much alive for its 2016 audience through a heartening, compelling, and gripping The Diary of Anne Frank.
The Diary of Anne Frank continues through November 20, 2016, at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are available at www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.