by Thomas F. Cole
“Where there's hope, there's life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.”
---Anne Frank, 6 June, 1944.
Eight people in hiding for their very lives, and one of them has become the face of the Holocaust, the systematic murder of the Jews of Europe and Hitler’s Final Solution during WWII. That face belongs to Anne Frank, who is convincingly played by Saginaw native and the current Miss Bay County, Jaeleen Davis, in Pit and Balcony’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank, which opened tonight, Friday, 26 January, 2018.
Hiding in the Secret Annex, a section of a building owned by Anne’s father’s jam making company in Amsterdam, are eight Jews: the four Franks, the three Van Daans, including son, Peter, and one who joins later. The challenge for California-born director, Danielle Katsoulos, is to present a play in which nearly everyone knows the outcome. How do you build suspense and hold the audience’s attention to the very end?
Sometimes live theatre is the best way to teach about historical events; this is one of those times.
Katsoullos chose the revised edition of this 1955 Pulitzer Prize winner by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett which was newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman in 1997. This new version presents a darker side of the daily experiences of two families in hiding, a dentist that joins them later, and the Christians who help them.
Katsoulos’ direction takes us on a roller coaster of emotions where moods change in seconds. The dichotomy of despair and hope is always present, and her attention to detail is amazing! Cast members are always doing some stage business even if they are not the focus of the scene. Anne’s speech about the gas chambers, which ends on the word “die” just as the ever-nervous Mr. Van Daan, played so well by Jeff List, lights a cigarette, is perfectly timed. One of the helpers, Miep, played hopefully by Amber Tanner, spins in pirouette fashion as she tells of a party she will be attending later that evening. Throughout the play this attention to detail by Katsoulos is everywhere and offers hope to an enthralled and engaged audience.
Davis faces the challenge of playing Anne as she goes from age 13 to 15, the hardest years of a young girl’s life. Her constant energy as Anne is in stark contrast to the somber mood of the rest of the cast. Davis is in full command as Anne Frank, with gestures, phrasing, and rapid-fire delivery that don’t miss a beat. As Anne turns 15 you will notice Davis flitting less about the hiding place nor sprawling on the floor as she had when she was 13.
Anne’s father, Otto, played by Kevin Profitt, is the opposite of her. Calm, upbeat, always the diplomat, always the glue holding everyone together. Profitt shows his range in a gut-wrenching speech in the second act.
Anne’s older sister, Margot, played by Cassandra Graham, is the quiet one, the one that the others wish Anne was like. Many actors don’t do much with her. Graham is riveting, however, and gives a stand out performance. In a 280-seat theatre, it can be difficult to pick up facial expressions, but not with Graham’s Margot. She not only acts with her face, but takes her character through a gradual emotional breakdown that builds throughout the night. You can’t take your eyes off of her.
Mrs. Van Daan, played by Rachel Creed, is flirty, aggressive, vain, obsessed with possessions, nosey, and almost unlikeable. Other cast members include Spencer Beyerlein as Mr. Kraler, one of the helpers; Andrew Fergerson as Mr. Dussel, Anne and Peter’s foil; and Mary Spadafore as Mrs. Edith Frank, who unleashes her fury in an extremely emotional scene, tempered by a huge announcement from Miep.
Great chemistry exists between Anne and Margot, Peter (Nathan Hanley) and Anne, and Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan as they explore one’s first kiss, what it means to be Jewish, and what the married couples first saw in each other.
Sound Designer L‘Oreal Hartwell incorporates many effects to build the tension of hiding for over two years, including seagulls, a clock carillon, Hitler voice overs, sirens, buzzers, and train whistles.
Transitions between scenes are done through lighting, designed by Bailey Banks. It is used to effectively direct our focus between characters and couples, contributing to the claustrophobic atmosphere.
Scenic designer Isaac Wood’s set is representative of the actual annex (a diagram of the real thing is on display in the lobby). Working with Katsoulos, he constructed a set which highlights the division between the two families and complements her direction.
Costume designer Karly Laskowski creates an accurate look for the time period, especially with the hairstyles.
Other people who deserve a shout out are the dramaturg and stage manager. It is dramaturg Claire Hadley’s responsibility to protect the historical accuracy of The Diary of Anne Frank, which she does. From the moment you enter the lobby, you are immersed in WWII and the world of Anne Frank. Posters, books, timelines, an interactive laptop, a book to write your thoughts, and hallway displays all show that she has done her research well. Stage manager Katie Short faces a unique challenge: she cannot communicate at all with her cast because they never leave the stage. If they forget a line or misplace a prop they are on their own.
A few minor things which could make this knockout production even better: put more movie stars on Anne’s wall in her room; she was obsessed with Hollywood; Anne’s scream during a nightmare could even be more chilling, certain sound effects such as the train whistle could be even louder, and a very important speech from Otto in the latter part of Act II could be louder.
At the end of the evening you should feel uncomfortable. This is a play about the Holocaust, after all. A unique historical event where over 11 million were murdered, including six million Jews of which 1.5 million were children. The cast, crew, and director do leave us with hope: they leave us the diary and Anne’s wish to go on living even after her death. They also leave us with this hopeful quote of Otto Frank:
What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it from happening again!
The Diary of Anne Frank continues this Saturday and Sunday and next week, February 2-4 with Friday and Saturday performances at 7:30 and Sunday matinee at 3pm. Tickets are available at www.pitandbalconytheatre.com or by calling the box office between noon and 5pm Tuesday - Friday at 989-754-6587. Prices range from $10-$18.