Anne Frank at Intiman: an avatar of uncompromised human spirit

The daily routines in that attic hideaway in Amsterdam existed under a special intensity that is well dramatized in Intiman's new production of a 1955 play.
Crosscut archive image.

Lucy DeVito stars as Anne Frank in Intiman Theatre's production of <i>The Diary of Anne Frank</i>. (Chris Bennion)

The daily routines in that attic hideaway in Amsterdam existed under a special intensity that is well dramatized in Intiman's new production of a 1955 play.

There's a wonderful 1995 documentary called Anne Frank Remembered, a two-hour film by Jon Blair (Schindler: The Documentary) that goes a long way toward bringing the real, unvarnished Anne Frank — her complex emotions as an adolescent, her horrifying fate with sister Margot at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp — into flesh-and-blood actuality. It ends with something quite extraordinary: a few seconds of footage of Anne herself, caught on camera while leaning out a window and smiling at a 1941 wedding party convened in the street below. For anyone whose heart and imagination have been captured by Anne's story — and that would be millions of people who have read the diary she kept while hiding from Nazis for two years — that long-ago glimpse of her looking animated and happy is staggering. I thought about that image while attending Intiman Theatre's new production of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's 1955 play The Diary of Anne Frank. The script, based on a carefully-edited, 1947 publication of the diary found after Anne, her family, and others were arrested and taken from their secret dwelling above an Amsterdam business, helped turn Anne Frank into an icon of hope and flowering possibility lost to the Holocaust. For decades, she has been a girl who quickly gets under your skin with her optimism and emerging wisdom. In the years since that first edition of the diary and subsequent hit play (and several film versions of the latter), a more rounded view of Anne, including her fears and streak of cynicism about the state of the world, emerged from a fuller edition of the diary published in the 1980s. Extensive research has resulted in various histories of the Franks' lives, and one can still visit their hideaway (the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam) and see personal effects of the former occupants, including magazine cutouts Anne attached to the walls of her room. These things do a lot to make Anne less a symbol and more an actual girl. The tension between an iconic and genuine Anne isn't resolved by Intiman's show, nor should it be entirely. Diary, directed by Sari Ketter, is telling a story, after all. But the production does emphasize the play's hothouse environment and how ordinary human behavior looks remarkable in the forced stasis of living under a persistent threat. Anne and the seven other Jews holed up in the so-called Secret Annex above Otto Frank's office have little to do besides talk, read, make food, and wait for developments that will affect their destinies — actions most of us take for granted. In the isolation of their refuge, the play's characters engage in an approximation of normality: homeschooling, flipping pages of fashion periodicals, peeking out a window. But the nuances of their relationships and dialogue with one another are fascinating to study in the absence of other distractions. The way these people comfort or bicker with one another, or betray or tease or lovingly sacrifice for one another, is as much the subject of Diary as Anne's gradual emergence as the writerly repository of group actions and moods, as well as her own reflections. If there were a camera present in the annex — if the Franks' every move and those of their guests were captured on a reality television show — the cross-dynamics within the community would be fragmented into unenlightening bits of intrigue. But Nayna Ramey's open set design, clarifying the annex's various bedrooms and common spaces while stripping them of privacy, allows for a perpetual and ever-shifting mosaic of behavior. The audience always knows what each of the play's eight characters is doing, even if most of them aren't doing very much and a given scene's emphasis is on, say, Anne (Lucy DeVito) or her mother (Amy Thone) or friend Peter Van Daan (Connor Toms). Marcus Dilliard's lighting design modulates energy throughout the annex, dampening but not obscuring some areas while enlivening others. Within this pressure cooker we see individuals make deliberate if undeclared choices about how they're going to get by emotionally. Often those choices are quite subtle. One wonders, for example, why Anne's older sister, Margot (Lindsay Evans), doesn't become a confidante of Peter's, to whom she is closer in age than Peter is to his good friend Anne. Then it dawns that one rarely sees Margot doing anything besides wordlessly helping her mother keep the household together as best she can, while Anne rebuffs Mrs. Frank at every turn. She might be quiet and colorless in the Franks' grim situation, but Margot is hardly a retiring character; she draws strength from selflessness. No explanation is necessary, either, for the arc of Peter's relationship with his father (Michael Winters), a cold and dismissive man whose desperation to survive eclipses parental virtue. Still, Peter's loyalty to his far-from-perfect dad is unshakeable, a touchstone during chaotic times. Otto Frank (Matthew Boston), a beacon of decency and consistent conviction, visibly struggles to maintain the example he sets for others despite signs of crumbling at his psychological edges. With everyone driven by instinct or need, Anne's free-spirited maturation from child to adolescence is easy to cherish, to recognize as a force of nature worth preserving even in the darkest times. DeVito embraces Anne's role as avatar of uncompromised human spirit, equally convincing in Anne's puppyish pre-adolescence (a kid so frightened of the Nazis she faints sometimes) as in her later poise, moving toward womanhood. In a strange way, something about the democracy of the play and of Intiman's production has a flattening effect that robs Diary of tension. There is plenty of conflict in the drama, but it is all so beautifully evenhanded and understanding that there can't be much range of emotion for an audience to feel beyond compassion and pity. That flaw may be owing mostly to the nature of the play, in which the characters themselves become the essence of Anne's oft-quoted observation that people are essentially good at heart. Happily, the production succeeds to the point where it feels like a privilege to be in the same room with the players. DeVito has made her Anne more than a symbol. But when all is said and done, I am left still wondering who that little girl, waving from the window in Anne Frank Remembered, really was.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Tom Keogh

Tom Keogh is a longtime writer about classical music, books, and film.