You don't have to have visited Amsterdam to know that the Dutch capital is famously tolerant, and not just because of its Red Light District and "coffee shops." The city was harboring religious refugees from their persecutors as early as the 16th century.
When you visit the city now, one of the most popular tourist attractions is the Anne Frank House in the Jordaan District. In 1999, it opened as a museum in the row house where Frank, her family and four others hid from the Nazis for two years during World War II. The museum also takes up the house that was next to it for much of the exhibition space, gift shop and such, but the most powerful part of that experience is walking up the steep, narrow stairs and through the tiny "annex" where they hid.
Miep Gies, who helped them hide, kept the space mostly intact (the sole entryway was hidden by a book shelf), including the pictures from movie magazines that Anne Frank pasted on her wall. She also kept Anne's diary, which was not taken when the Nazis found the Franks and their friends and took them to the concentration camps. Anne's father, Otto, would be the only survivor, and he later became a powerful voice against the forces of intolerance. Anne's writings have remained important for that theme, and have inspired films, books and a play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
The play is done frequently, as well it should be, and this year seems to be a big one for the title on local stages. Perhaps the death of Gies in 2010 (at age 100) struck a chord during play-reading time for producers, and The Diary of Anne Frank seemed a no-brainer. Community theaters in Richardson, Duncanville and Hurst have it on their rosters for 2012, but the professional WaterTower Theatre sets a high bar for the story in their current production, which is marvelously designed and acted, and thoughtfully directed by Terry Martin.
They've chosen to use an adaptation of the script by Wendy Kesselman, whose version was performed on Broadway in 1997, with Natalie Portman playing the title role.
The characters are of course the same. Anne (Molly Franco), her sister Margot (Jessica Renee Russell) her their parents Otto (Stan Graner) and Edith (Emily Scott Banks) are shown into the hiding place at the top floors of the row house, overlooking one of the city's famous canals. They'd be joined by fellow Jews the Van Daans (Paul Taylor and Lucia Welch) and their son Peter (Travis Tope), who Anne at first dislikes until hormones take over and he becomes her first crush. Later, a cranky dentist named Mr. Dussel (Ted Wold) joins them. Dana Schultes plays Gies and Andrew Kasten is Mr. Kraler (who was really named Victor Kugler; Anne called him Mr. Kraler in her diary).
Kesselman frames the story a little differently, with a powerful ending as Otto returns to the "secret annex" after he was released from the concentration camp, and has learned that everyone with whom he hid wasn't so lucky. In this version, and with WaterTower's powerful staging, it's less a historical drama and more of a real human story. There's more emotion from Anne, who has monologues from her diaries and feels like more of a teenage girl than in the version on which Kesselman's adaptation if based (or at least in the productions of it I've seen).
It's a deeply emotional retelling, made even poignant because even though we know how it ends, there's a sense of hope thanks to the charisma of the storyteller. Actually, perhaps that's why it's so sad. No matter how hard you wish the world wouldn't be so cruel, atrocities have happened, and still do.
Cabin fever permeates, as the people hiding in the annex have to learn to live with each other in such a confined space, even though the set at a large theater (designed by Clare Floyd DeVries) has to make the annex space bigger than it actually was. Still, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable. Lighting by Susan A. White and costumes by Michael Robinson accent the production nicely.
The adult actors turn in solid work, with Welch and Taylor getting some of the most gut-wrenching scenes, and rendering them powerfully. But it's the younger actors who make this production sing, even if in darker tones. Russell and Tope are each fascinating to watch, but of course Anne has to carry the show. Franco imbues her with intelligence, insight and a girlish charm that makes her fully realized. The scene in which she realizes her growing fondness for Peter, with an obvious body-changing joy bubbling inside her, is priceless. In some ways she's an ordinary teenage girl, and couldn't have known how her story live on beyond her tragic death (she died in Bergen-Belsen, a few weeks before it was liberated). Anne Frank was indeed extraordinary, and Franco's performance lives up to that.
Aside from her usual detailed touches, DeVries' set includes lit windows below their annex (on the stage floor level) so we get the sense of height. The silhouette of the spire on the nearby Westerkerk, a church built in the 17th century, is visible, a remainder of the eternal hope just outside the window. That church still stands just across the street where tourists line up early to see the Anne Frank House. (And true to Amsterdam's legacy with freedom, there's a monument to gays who were also persecuted in the war on the same block as that church.)
If you haven't been there, a trip to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House should be on your bucket list. Nothing can match the power of witnessing the place that, through a young girl's hopeful and courageous words, lives on as a symbol to the world.
WaterTower's production is as powerful as any depiction of that story you're likely to see on stage.
◊ From the Anne Frank House's YouTube page, here's a video of Otto Frank talking about getting his daughter's diary: