Over seven decades later, World War II still exists as one of the darkest times in the history of mankind. Storytellers continue to mine its historical highs and lows for new content to this day. Just last year alone, there were two different films about the Dunkirk evacuation.
These WWII stories are normally set on foreign battlefields, in the halls of Parliament, or at an American Naval base. These stories are normally populated by valiant soldiers and steadfast government officials. The families of those men only exist in photographs or in heavy-handed scenes meant to humanize the heroic figures. Like all those stories, The Diary of Anne Frank is based on a true and truly harrowing saga of survival during the odious reign of the Nazi Party in Europe in the 1940s. Unlike all those stories, Anne Frank’s story is an intimate one, set in a tiny attic populated by only nine other characters.
The best choice Prime Stage Theatre makes with its production of The Diary of Anne Frank—credited as being dramatized by Pulitzer Prize winners Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and based upon the book Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl—is that of its powerhouse leading lady.
Madeline Dalesio is the absolute perfect Anne: endearingly wise beyond her years, precocious yet ferocious, and armed with a rapier wit. She is not just the heart of this production. She is its entire circulatory system. Everyone in the cast is best when playing opposite her.
Ms. Dalesio’s performance convinced me that Anne’s story truly is a saga of survival. Of course, Anne did not literally survive the Nazi concentration camps, but it’s clear that her spirit is very much alive in Dalesio. She enters The Annex in the first scene brimming with positivity. Anne is very cognizant of the desperate circumstances that have landed her in the cramped living quarters with her father Otto (Michael Perry), her mother Edith (April Daras), her sister Margot (Gabrielle Kogut), and family friends the van Daans (Chelsea Bartel, Randy Berner, and Somerset Young), but she chooses to try to make the most of it. [the_ad id=”6914″]
It proves to be an especially tall order when it becomes clear that the families could be stuck hiding from the Nazis in The Annex for an indefinite amount of time. For both of the two New Years the families ring in there, they have a cake saluting the then non-existent end of the war. During daylight hours, they are unable to move around freely, run water, or even speak for fear of making their presence known to the people occupying the office beneath them. Their only access to scarce amounts of food, supplies, and news about the war are the saviors who made the arrangements for their hideout, Miep Gies (Heather Irwin) and Mr. Kraler (Brian Ceponis).
While most everyone else chooses to take refuge from The Annex’s brewing tensions and resentments in the W.C., Anne turns to her diary for solace. She writes vividly about her relationships with the people around her and the world outside simultaneously passing her by and closing in on her.
Ms. Dalesio plays all these beats to perfection whether it be in voice over narration between scenes or in dialogue with other actors. She’s a spitfire when feuding with The Annex’s new resident Mr. Dussel (George Saulnier). Most importantly though, her Anne is still a child navigating her burgeoning womanhood with Ms. Bartel’s hilarious Mrs. van Daan as a glamorous alternative to Mrs. Frank’s model, sharing stolen, flirtatious moments with Mr. Young’s charming Peter, and confiding in Mr. Perry’s sensitive Mr. Frank. [the_ad id=”2996″]
Along with the cast, the other architects of Anne’s world also realize with it great reverence and craftsmanship. With the help of Johnmichael Bohach’s very effective and purposely overstuffed scenic design, director Wayne Brinda imbues the production with a subtly suffocating sense of claustrophobia. As he moves the characters throughout the space in various scenes, he emphasizes their profound lack of physical and emotional breathing room. Unfortunately, Mr. Brinda’s clumsy transition from the play’s final heartbreaking scene in The Annex back to the play’s hackneyed framing device does end the evening on a disappointing note.
Projection designer Joe Spinogatti literally fulfills Prime Stage Theatre’s mission of bringing literature to life. Whenever Anne sits down to write, pages from the diary are shown scrolling across a trio of panels above The Annex. As Anne’s penmanship evolves, various images from the WWII serve as its backdrop and evolve as well. The chilling juxtaposition of Anne’s famous quote asserting her belief that there is still good in the world against footage of wartime violence lingers long after the lights come back up.
Since its initial publication 1947, The Diary of a Young Girl has been translated into 60 languages. Anne’s unwavering strength and humanity is an inspiration to all persecuted people, especially in a time when the horrors she faced are still far from fictional.
Despite its ubiquity and this serviceable (save for a remarkable lead performance) adaptation, this is a story that will always be and should always be told.
Prime Stage Theatre’s The Diary of Anne Frank runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 13. For tickets and more information, click here.
Categories: Archived Reviews