Dreamland’s “Anne Frank” intimate yet powerful
By Jim Sulzer
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” now on stage at the Dreamland Theater, is a searing and heartbreaking theatrical production of an iconic work, told with grace, compassion and love.
Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” is one of the seminal texts of the 20th century, a cry of humanity from the depths of the holocaust, a declaration of individuality scrawled on the faceless edifice of fascism.
The fact that these are the musings of a precocious girl in her early teens, confined in the pressure cooker of a secret annex while hiding from the Nazis, adds tragic resonance to Frank’s thoughts and reflections, both the peeved criticisms of her housemates as well as her soaring and beautiful rhetoric.
Frank’s diary contains multiple storylines: her growing connection with her father, her strained relations with her mother, her envy of her perfect-seeming older sister Margot, her annoyance at the marital woes of the Van Daans, her repugnance for her roommate Mr. Dussel the dentist, and her budding infatuation with the Van Daans’ son Peter.
Surrounding it all like a dark storm cloud, and illuminating everything with lightning bolts of terror, is the reality of their situation: They
are a Jewish extended family, huddled together in two tiny rooms, living in mortal fear that the slightest stray sound will reveal them to the Nazis.
Superbly directed by Laura Gallagher Byrne, the Dreamland’s production captures all of these story strands. The show provides an intimate glimpse into the lives of eight people who not only fear the evil of the Nazis but also – as the strains of daily life become too much to bear – begin to fear their own potential for causing harm to one another.
The production features a magnificent performance by George Pappas as Otto Frank, Anne’s father. He communicates Otto’s warmth and dignity with a directness and authenticity that will glow in the hearts of theatergoers long afterwards. With subtle shadings of body language and tone of voice, he brings to life Otto’s skill in crises as a negotiator and voice of reason. There is not a moment that feels forced or wrong in his depiction of a wise and grieving father, and he is the glue that holds the many pieces of the production together.
Nantucket native Chloe Girvin shows star qualities as Anne Frank.A natural on the stage, with quick, light motions and eloquent facial expressions that mirror Anne’s mood changes, Girvin creates a charming portrait of the 13 year-old girl, both her high spirits and her despair. The seventh-grader humanizes Anne with just the right combination of teenaged defiance and emerging empathy and shows the ability to command center stage when asked to do so, for instance in a lovely scene when Anne keeps agitating to sing the Hanukkah song.
In her debut at the Dreamland, Jess Andra gives us an Edith Frank (Anne’s mother) who displays not only the rigidity that drives Anne to distraction but also a deeply felt, often unspoken sense of caring.
Under Byrne’s deft and detailed direction, the largely local cast submits memorable and moving performances. Nicole LeBlanc as Margot is reserved and sympathetic, gracefully ceding the stage to others for periods of time, but stepping forward as her role requires with a warm, even presence.
Cynthia Csabay is a standout as the mercurial, self-centered Mrs.Van Daan, and she and Jack Bulger, who plays her husband, generate comic tension as well as moments of anguish. Dylan Marks, who plays their son Peter, is a strong force on stage, defining himself as an outcast, dismissive of his parents, while holding open the possibility that he might be a friend or more to Anne.
Andrew Cromartie provides non-stop entertainment in his comic portrayal of the insufferable dentist Mr. Dussel, who takes over Anne’s room with his ceaseless demands and complaints.
The vivacious Laurie Richards as Miep and the serene Tucker Holland as Mr. Kraler add kindness and a reminder of the outside world, portraying the two non-Jewish characters who risk their lives to bring food and other supplies to the family.
Mollie Glazer’s cello adds a haunting lyricism to many moments on stage as she plays a musical score that features some original pieces as well as familiar Jewish songs such as “Bashana Haba’ah.” Her playing is a masterful addition to the production.
The set design by Dan Mellitz vividly represents the cramped quarters of the secret annex. The costumes by Liza Gershman help create an atmosphere and are perfect to the time and place.The lighting design by Stephen Petrilli communicates the fear and gloom as well as brighter moments of levity.
The dramatization by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 and includes numerous personal interactions (as described in Anne’s diary) that humanize the characters. Needless to say, the characters portrayed so vividly in the journal are seen through Anne’s eyes alone, and readers can recognize how subjective the portraits must therefore be.
When the same characters are transferred to the stage, they arrive pre-branded, as it were, with Anne’s perspective. As an example, was Mr. Dussel truly as obnoxious as Anne portrays him? We’ll never know, but her observations are so lively and compelling that we accept them without reservation.
What we do know is that this wrenching, complex, tragic story remains crucial to our history and to our evolving sense of who we are. Kudos to the Dreamland for recreating so powerfully the story of Anne Frank.
“The Diary of Anne Frank,” Dreamland Theater, 17 South Water St., through Oct. 14, for times.