Campus News

REVIEW: ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

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The lights come up on a small cluster of rooms, perched precariously on the edge of the stage. Actors shuffle through the disorganized furniture in the cramped spaces. The audience watches a small group of people take their stand against one of the greatest evils of human history—the Nazi invasion of Europe. In a country with great freedoms, beset mostly by vague and distant enemies, it is difficult for most of us to comprehend this type of struggle for survival. But this is the theme of the latest production by the Bethel College Department of Theatre, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, with special guest director Clarence Gilyard. The show portrays neither a combat of arms nor of ideologies; rather it shows life. The play shows the decision of a group of Jewish refugees to persist in living in spite of the forces set against them. Part of what makes this story so remarkable is that it is true. A young girl named Anne Frank, with her family, the Van Daan family, and a dentist, Mr. Dussel took refuge in an annex of an office building in their home city of Amsterdam, hoping to survive the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Over more than two years in hiding, these people had to learn to live together in an environment that allowed almost no privacy or personal space. Somehow, they managed to find traces of ordinary life in the midst of those stresses, perhaps their greatest act of defiance against the regime that sought to exterminate the entire Jewish race. And it is the life of this production that makes it successful. The play, fittingly, is carried by the tremendous energy of Anne herself. I saw the performance of Rachel Halcombe, who shares the role with Caitlin Halstead. Halcombe brings exuberant life to the precocious teenager, whose honest and sincere words, recorded in her diary, inspired the play. This performance is well complimented by that of Wesley Lantz in the role of Peter Van Daan. Lantz is almost charming as the awkward adolescent forced into close proximity with strangers. Additionally, there is a refreshing sincerity to the chemistry between Halcombe and Lantz, whose characters share a blossoming romance in the midst of their tense environment. Further variety is added by other members of the cast. The performances of Robert Kerr and Christen Wegener as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan threaten to go over the top, but the actors’ commitment to their dynamic characters add to the texture of the play. They are balanced against the more restrained, but still authentic, performances of Janelle Rundquist as Edith Frank (Anne’s mother) and Sarah Leigh Beason as Margot Frank. The backstage efforts of Bethel’s production also aides in bringing life to the play.Guided by dramaturge A.J. Reynolds, the play conveys a historical authenticity as well. The scenery provides familiar naturalism, but also communicates the absence of personal space its occupants had to face. Furthermore, set off-center, tipped as though sliding off the stage, composed of half-formed, crumbling walls, it is a reminder of the fragility of the security provided by this refuge. While the costumes never grabbed attention—this was their role. They conveyed subtle messages about the characters who wore them, and the costume changes helped the audience grasp the passage of time as two years of real life experience were condensed into a two hour play. Lights and sound also add to the tone of the environment. Moody lighting serves a reminder of the restraint and fear felt at even the most optimistic moments. The sounds, whether they are squeaky floors, crackling radio broadcasts, or the rumble of dropping bombs, wrap the audience in the situation they watch, tuning their ears to the same careful listening that becomes a habit of those in hiding. So, every siren or mysterious clatter that startles the cast creates a tension palpable for the audience as well. The play’s action oscillates between intimate moments and busy group scenes, between arguments, consolations, fear, and glimpses of happiness. The transitions are sometimes sudden, but this simply makes the production more engaging. However, the success of these varied moods is also what makes it so disappointing when there are particularly long transitions between certain scenes. While the choice to have the actors remain onstage for the entire production, including during intermission, is largely successful and reinforces the reality of what it meant for this group of refugees to be trapped together, it is, nevertheless, disappointing to feel the play’s momentum dissipating while actors perform costume changes on a dimly lit stage. Another drawback is that the lights and sound, while clearly well-designed, are both beset by the technical glitches that so often detract from theatrical productions. There is also disappointment in the performance of Stephen Horton as Otto Frank (Anne’s father). Otto Frank is known to have been the stable center of the tense, and at times tempestuous, environment these refugees shared. What seems like Horton’s attempt to convey a stolid calm comes across flat instead. This is often a letdown amidst the other more vivid characters. Horton is redeemed somewhat in his delivery of the play’s epilogue as an aged Otto Frank tells of what happened to each member of their group after their eventual discovery by Nazi soldiers. However, it is possible that this scene’s emotion owes as much to the writing as it does to the delivery. Nevertheless, these detractions do not damage the shining heart of the production—its hope. It is evident in the prayers said in the midst of a bombing raid, in a Hanukah celebration while in hiding, in the words of Anne Frank herself as she writes, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” While Anne’s life was eventually lost to Nazi persecution, her words and her hope survived. They call us all to live lives better than our circumstances. Bethel’s production is a worthy tribute to that message.
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