January 26, 2020
This familiar story comes to powerful life on stage
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
Des Moines Community Playhouse continues its stellar season with a somber, touching story pulled from history. The story of Anne Frank and her close-knit band of hideaways remains a beacon in remembering a chapter in the world’s history that must never be forgotten. Producing it onstage is a powerful way to keep the memories relevant for all. The Diary of Anne Frank is a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based upon the book, “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl,” and newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Kessleman’s, which opened on Broadway in 1997, 42 years after Goodrich and Hackett’s play debuted on Broadway where it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Drama Desk Critics Award.
Entering the performance hall immediately plunges patrons into a world of over 75 years ago. The ghostly dim lighting of the fully exposed set subdues patrons into a more reverential pre-show mood. Conversations seem more hushed, folks are carefully processing every nook and cranny of this WW II-era Jewish safety zone. This sense of tension continues as the producers decided, wisely, to dim the house lights at curtain, and delve into the story…without a curtain speech. Hallelujah.
Director Jodi Jinks takes a measured approach in telling this story. Hers is a well-matched ensemble, each nicely filling their roles in this group of unwilling sojourners hiding from the growing threat of Nazi occupation. The pace of this production didn’t quite reach a level that underscored the situation. A stronger fear of unwanted discovery was needed, a greater tension of so many living in cramped quarters. Jinks does pull enough from the relationships to provide a growing sense of dread, drawn out from the passage of time and confinement.
In the title role, Isabelle Piedras brings a layered, confident portrayal of Anne. Piedras adds nuance and the special poetic energy we’ve learned through historical references about Anne Frank, taking full ownership of this pivotal role. As Anne’s parents, Otto and Edith, Greg Blumhagen and Melanie Hall bring a calming grace to their roles. Anne’s sister, Margo, was given quiet life by Rachel Geisler, bringing some wonderful moments of contrast between her and Anne. Close friends Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan provide more textured aspects to their roles thanks to Brad D. Church and Molly Fullerton. Church’s persnickety portrayal and Fullerton’s lavish indulgence add wonderfully to their scenes and the variety in the story. As their son, Peter, Marquis Bundy brings a shyness to his character’s persona. As Mr. Kraler, one of the outside world protectors, Oliver Thrun wraps himself in a no-nonsense connection to the outer world. As the unexpected addition to their clan, Mr. Dussel, Brian Bopp brings a skittish energy that rocks the fragile group’s stability. Their dependence for a food source fell upon one person, Meip Gies, where Rebecca Haroldson gives enough stealth and glimpses of moral support to her role to bring breaths of fresh air into the confined environs of their self-created isolation.
Truly another “character” element is this show’s production design. When a set exudes and enveloping aura such as this does, the performance and audience’s experience is elevated. Alex Snodgrass (Scenic Artist) and Amanda Pichler (Lighting Designer) lead a beautifully conceived vision for this show. Their artistry wrapped around the actors, their scenes, bringing focused direction to every moment on stage. In closing this story, when Otto Frank delivers the epilogue of what happened to his family and friends, the final image is a stunning: Otto in a darkly sorrowful, dappled lighting effect, overlaid by projections of pages from Anne’s diary. Then, the final dimming of the lights, silence, and the audience is left to catch their breath at this final evocative moment.
The live theatre power of The Diary of Anne Frank brings a poignance no book can achieve.
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