- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

“The Diary of Anne Frank” — just the pick-me-up you need during the fast-approaching holiday season. Actually, the Round House Theatre’s production has a radiance and hushed spirituality that make you newly appreciative of the sacredness of human life. Horrific ending aside, what lingers after this somber and rich staging are both the tragedy that nearly every person in the secret annex — including the peerless Anne — died and the miracle that they packed so much blessed life into their time on Earth.

Under the heartfelt and careful direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman, “Anne Frank” glows anew, because of an outstanding ensemble and also because of Wendy Kesselman’s new adaptation. The original diary was published by Otto Frank, the sole annex survivor, in 1947. An English translation followed in 1952.

Legions of readers were deeply affected by the diary and the image of a dark-eyed Anne gazing steadily and brightly from the book cover. You felt as though you had made — and lost — a friend after reading that diary and seeing that photo.

In 1955, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted the diary for the stage and received the Pulitzer Prize in drama. This version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a staple of community theaters and school productions for decades, affirming Anne’s iconic sacrificial image.

In 1995, after Otto Frank’s death, a definitive edition of the diary was released, which contains passages dealing with Anne’s blossoming sexuality, her proud Jewishness and her often unseemly feelings for her mother and older sister. What emerged was a fuller and more intricate picture of Anne Frank, and it is on the 1995 edition of the diary — as well as a harrowing epilogue in which Holocaust survivors recount the last days of Anne and her family in the concentration camp — that Miss Kesselman bases her adaptation. The newest version of the play opened on Broadway in 1997, with Natalie Portman in the lead.

The result is a play truer to life and less saintly than the original drama. The Frank family, and the four other persons hiding out in the Amsterdam factory building, are shown as brave, certainly, but also frustrated, bored, depressed and ingenious.

That goes double for Anne Frank, played with vivacity and willy-nilly emotion by Lea Michele. Her Anne possesses a lively intelligence and heart, but she’s also a tremendous itch and pest, especially in the beginning, when the 13-year-old arrives in the secret Amsterdam annex and is forced to contain her energy. Not just her foot, but her whole being jiggles with impatience and pure adolescent antsiness.

Her fellow teenager in hiding, Peter Van Daan (Peter Stadlen) is equally hormonal, but he expresses it in an awkward and appealing shyness. Under Anne’s constant prodding, he comes out of his shell in front of our eyes, opting to live instead of crawl inside himself. Their friendship — and her first kiss — is beguiling, tinged with promise and sadness.

Similarly, Bess Rous’ Margot Frank is not a frump but a smart and painfully self-aware girl who uses her goody-goody demeanor as a protective armor. Miss Rous’ character serves as more than a foil for Anne Frank, becoming a conflicted and multidimensional character in her own right.

The adult roles are satisfyingly filled, as well, starting with Sherri L. Edelen as the spoiled and fluttery Mrs. Van Daan, Rich Foucheux as a Mr. Van Daan tragically ruled by his appetites, Kathryn Kelley’s poignant Edith Frank and Gary Sloan as the fair-minded Otto. Mitchell Hebert is particularly notable for his portrayal of the fussbudget dentist Mr. Dussel.

Miss Taichman, aided by James Kronzer’s cramped and cozy set, views the play’s action as a hive, with the various characters buzzing about and trying not to get in one another’s way. The bursts of conversation and bickering give the production a sense of life and purpose, but the play lives in the silences — when the occupants of the attic are forced to monitor their voices and movements, and when the audience waits noiselessly for Otto to walk back up the attic stairs and deliver the stunning denouement.

It is in this absence of sound that “Anne Frank” gathers its sad majesty. We watch the characters poised between life and stasis, caught between the movements and words that give their lives meaning and the knowledge that these same actions could bring them closer to death.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” may seem like an eccentric, downer choice for the holiday season, but what you come away with is the shining example and untarnished hope of Anne Frank’s life and the enduring gift of her diary.

***.

WHAT: “The Diary of Anne Frank,” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, new adaptation by Wendy Kesselman

WHERE: Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 12.

TICKETS: $28 to $45

PHONE: 240/644-1100

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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