Review of Barter Theatre's 'Diary of Anne Frank'
A Well-Known Story Gets a Fresh Dose of 'Spirit'
By TOMMY BRYANT | March 09, 2010Most everyone is familiar with the story of Anne Frank. She was a very young girl who lived during a barbaric time in world history, and she recorded her thoughts, her feelings, about life and the events surrounding her. At times those words were similar in tone to any other young girl: boys, puberty, arguments with parents. But Anne Frank's words still continue on because of the spirit of a young girl – a spirit that could not help but shine.
Barter's production of The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the most moving productions of the last decade. The subject matter has a great deal to do with that, of course, but it's the way the piece is put together that makes the whole experience something that audience members will not soon forget.
The first impression is visual, with an admiration for the design of the set. It is really quite something to see how the Barter crew creates such a claustrophobic feeling without the actors running into each other or falling all over the furniture. Yet they move about the stage like a dance, and the story greatly benefits. After all, young Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years, sharing a cramped living space with another family. You truly get a sense of how difficult it was with this play. You also get a sense of the indomitable will of Anne Frank.
Although actress Kelly Klein is older than fourteen, she does a very good job in the role of Anne Frank. She's tiny, exuberant, and plays up the teenage experience in a believable, powerful way. Danny Vaccaro's portrayal of Otto Frank highlights the way this group of individuals struggled to keep out of each other's way, and how they had to constantly strive to make do. But the favorite performance of the evening belonged to Gannon McHale as Mr. Dussel – the old, crusty, feisty curmuddeon who makes Anne's life a living hell. It's the least he can do; she's making his life hell too.
The pacing of this story is also wonderful. Given that all the action takes place in such a small space and that the focus is one young girl's feelings, things are always happening, and the story is always advancing. Even when Anne delves into her teen angst, it is interesting and compelling. Imagine how difficult it would be to live a relatively normal life with the ever-present threat of Nazi death camps just beyond your door.
When the play moves in and out of the historical elements, you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat. Even knowing how events ultimately played out does not take away the tension and suspense of this production. And when that knock on the door finally comes, it makes you slow your breath in anxiety. Ever so briefly there is an image of the barbed wire fences of the death camps, and the realization that Anne Frank would meet a bad end, after you've come to know her so well, and care for her.
The play, for me, had only one drawback. Given the nature of the story, and the power of the performances, I can't help but imagine seeing it on Barter's Stage II. On the Main Stage, you get the feeling that you are watching a performance. And with a play like this one, you can still be moved. However, in Stage II's more intimate setting, you become almost another character, more fully invested in the outcome of the story. With a play like The Diary of Anne Frank that could be a good thing, or a bad thing. Perhaps it would be too much to bear.
It's a bit ironic, isn't it? Hitler promised his followers that he would create a dynasty that would reign for one thousand years. Yet despite all his best efforts he died, pathetically, in a bunker, with little of his mind left intact. But there was a small girl, not yet fifteen, who wrote her thoughts down in a little diary, and she exhibited a strength and determination that will survive hundreds of years into the future. Barter's production of this play is a wonderful reminder of the strength of the human spirit, and the soul of a little girl that will never die.
About the Writer: Thomas Bryant teaches at Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon. He has a BA in English from King College and a master's degree in Screenwriting & Film Studies from Hollins University. His play Thesis had a staged reading at the Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh, N.C., and his Level to the Ground was selected for the Henri Edmonds' New Works Festival.