Brightness in a blackout4/15/2015
Screens and shadows rarely matter so much as they do in “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The show takes place in cramped quarters where the Franks and other Jews survive two years in Nazi-held Amsterdam. But Jay Jaglim, who designed the set and handles the lighting, finds unexpected nooks and crannies. Screens create private moments, while emotions shift each time another of the bare, dangling bulbs goes on or off.
The technical elements rank among the best I’ve seen in town. Even the backdrop adds something, recalling Marc Chagall — one of the few European Jews to escape the Holocaust.
The weight of such history could crush “Anne Frank.” In 1944, someone betrayed the group to the Gestapo, and all but one, Anne’s father Otto, died in the camps. It was Otto who published the diary, and by the time the book became a play in 1956, the story was world-famous. In a nutshell: You meet these lovely people, and then they all die.
The problem led to a late ’90s rewrite, but this version ends with the father onstage alone, ticking off one death after another. Happily, though, Shawn Wilson knows how to render such stuff dramatic. He’s a hero with nuance. When the shut-ins are at each other’s throats, he settles them with no more than a loaded stare. Wilson’s self-possession and ethical core make a fascinating contrast to other roles of his — weaker or wickeder — such as last year in “True West.”
As for weak and wicked, look to the Van Danns, played by John Robinson and Alissa Tschetter-Seidschlaw. The couple’s name suggests the status they enjoyed before the war, but now they must learn to play with others. The effort leaves Robinson sagging and long-faced, while Tschetter-Seidschlaw erupts in manic mood swings. Every one seems to give her a fresh dimple or frown line.
Still, as Anne’s mother puts it, she’s not afraid anyone else will “walk over” her daughter. Rather, declares Jamie Bassman, resigned yet severe: “I’m afraid that you’ll walk over them.”
Anne must supply the play’s life force, powerful enough to outlast the gas chambers. In the role, Roosevelt senior Elizabeth Fisher has the right buoyancy. When she breaks into a grin, you worry it’ll shine through the blackout curtains. She isn’t quite so convincing with the fear and the chills, but when she sits down with sister Margot, handled with fine restraint by Katy Merriman, you get the balance. One sister is light, and the other is dark. At the end, when the Germans break in, the two girls and young Peter Van Dann (Joshua Handleman, teetering between shy and forward) have found a corner to themselves, in a bath of warm light. For a moment, the children remain safe — and with them Anne Frank’s conviction that “people are good at heart.”
Overheard in the Lobby: Through April 26, the Playhouse is showing “Around the World in 80 Days”… Through April 19, Winterset presents “Death by Disco.” CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.