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Honestly Frank

Spotlighters Offers an Unusual but Effecting Diary

Frank Talk: (clockwise from left) Sherrionne Brown, Bill Molnar, Maria Lakkala, Mich'l Keating, and Roy Hammond

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 4/10/2002

The Diary of Anne Frank

Adapted by Wendy Kesselman from the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett

Acting teachers love to tell their pupils to "commit." It's a veritable mantra. Commit to the role. Commit to your choices. Commit to the scene. The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre does just that with its current production of The Diary of Anne Frank, proving that acting teachers have the right idea.

You enter the play's world as soon as you enter the theater, retracing Anne's steps past Nazi flags into a storage room and right past the secret door to the annex in an Amsterdam home where the Jewish Frank family hid for two years during World War II. The tiny Spotlighters stage, which often feels too cramped for ensemble productions, is effective here, emphasizing the confined quarters of the Franks and their companions. Set designer Jimmie Cooper uses a black-and-gray palette to set the mood, and a radio broadcast offers news briefs of the German invasion of Holland before the play begins.

Wendy Kesselman's admirably complex adaptation of the play, originally by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, likewise offers the audience a real world to inhabit, eschewing the usual movie-of-the-week treatment of Anne Frank for a bracingly unsentimental look at life in hiding. Anne is no angel, and the annex's inhabitants fight with each other constantly. The Franks--father Otto, mother Edith, and daughters Margot and Anne--have a difficult time dealing with housemates the Van Daans and their argumentative patriarch, flighty and flirty mother, and shy son Peter. Add highly obnoxious and histrionic dentist Mr. Dussel, and it's a wonder the eight of them didn't kill each other while they were sequestered in those few small rooms.

But Kesselman's most affecting touch comes at the production's midpoint. Rather than drop the lights and allow the actors to shuffle offstage before starting intermission, she does something both unexpected and deeply moving: She keeps the actors onstage, driving home with power and subtlety that the Franks could not leave the annex even for a moment. Director John Sadowsky insures that his actors carry off this tricky action as they roam the stage in character throughout the intermission. It's an inspired touch that really works.

The production missteps only when it fails to live up to a similar level of commitment. In general, Sadowsky does a good job building tension. When the annex dwellers hear a sound late one night, the tension is palpable, so much so that when Peter knocks over a pot in the ensuing silence I actually jumped. That's why it's such a shame that the climax falls so flat, as the audience spies two Nazis with toy guns creeping toward the Franks' hideaway, bringing to mind Elmer Fudd more than impending doom.

The actors' accents also prove problematic. It would have been better had the actors not used accents at all than to have Otto Frank speaking in a thick accent, Anne accent free, and Mr. Van Daan sounding like Fred Mertz substituting "v"s for "w"s. Fortunately, strong performances distract from this gaffe. Lauren Ciarpella does an excellent job as the exuberant, often obnoxious Anne. Sherrionne Brown fills Edith Frank's every breath with anguish and perseverance, and Bill Molnar's Otto beautifully grounds the drama just as the real Otto did for his family. The play is based on a book written by a child, and as a result some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional: Margot (Ariel Schloss) is an angel, Mr. Van Daan (Michael Keating) is a bully, and Mr. Dussel (Roy Hammond) is a total freak. But the actors take on even these limited characteristics with gusto, giving the entire play a real sense of life despite the ever-looming shadow of death.

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