“Anne Frank” Continues to Break Our Hearts 75 Years after Her Death at Theatre Institute at Sage
“The Diary of Anne Frank” is one of the most famous books in the world. Anne had received a red and white checked autograph book for her thirteenth birthday in June of 1942. A month later she and her family went into hiding from the Nazis and she became an avid diarist, pouring her heart into its pages for the next two and a half years of their seclusion. She died in February or March of 1945 at Bergen-Belsen. When her father, the only surviving member of the family, returned to Amsterdam, he found the diary and published it in Dutch in 1947. Its English translation was published in 1952 and it received its Broadway adaptation by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett in 1955. In 1997 it was given a new stage adaptation by Wendy Kesselman which streamlined the action cutting 40 pages of the script and including a brief monologue detailing Anne’s awakening sexuality.
If it is at all possible for you to see “The Diary of Anne Frank” at a student matinee, I highly recommend you do so. Theatre Institute at Sage is presenting a sterling production exquisitely directed by local theater luminary Eileen Schuyler. We all know how the story ends and to those of us in the theater, we can be excused for taking it for granted through over-familiarity. This is the second “Anne Frank” I’ve seen this season and I had completely forgotten that I had played an offstage Nazi in TIS’s precursor company, NYSTI 39 years ago this month. The young audience was enthralled with the quotidian details of life in the annex, the familial tensions and accommodations until the conclusion of a date between Anne (luminous Francesca Volpe) and Peter Van Daan (AJ Joyner) and Anne throws herself on him and kisses him. The children in the audience whooped and one stood up throwing his hands in the air. This is not an unusual occurrence at a student matinee but the tension was great and the attention to the lives lived was so rapt you could almost forget that you were watching this tragic story with a hundred school children until the kiss sent their hearts soaring. My heart skipped a beat. An indelible moment in the theater.
Director Eileen Schuyler and her cast do very well by the details of the lives lived here. From the opening moments when the Franks and Van Daan’s unpack their belongings “quiet as baby mice” to the intermission where the actors remain onstage, trapped and going through their day as the audience takes its break. “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Theatre Institute at Sage features students of The Sage Colleges and two guest artists, David Baecker (Associate Professor of Theater) as Otto Frank and Shayne David Cameris who is a member of the Resident Acting Company of Troy Foundry Theatre as Mr. Van Daan. Liesel Gerstenberger as Edith Frank makes a very strong impression, matches well with Baecker and excels in her confrontations with Volpe and Cameris. David Baecker is invaluable as Otto Frank whether dancing with Anne, his sharp warning that “One mistake could cost us our lives” to his final handling of his fountain pen and Anne’s book. He is a strong, loving support and I loved seeing where Anne derives her goodness. Volpe is terrific-darting around the attic, having a great time in all her antics without ever condescending to “play” a child but she especially excels in her tender, searching scenes with Peter and her father. When he comforts her with “Everybody’s having nightmares, only you let them out” I melted with recognition.
Kately Allen does a fine job as Mrs. Van Daan stealing a dance with Otto, supporting and squabbling with her weak husband played terrifically by Shayne Cameris. Her advice to him “If you’re hungry…hold on to me” is delicious. I’ve never seen Cameris better, giving a solid performance as a weak man. He impresses greatly in this production, imperious, dismissive and finally broken. Also, doing fine work are Elizabeth Broderick as Anne’s sister Margot, Regina Desrosiers as Miep, Vincent Pruchnik as Mr. Kraler and recent Sage graduate Mitchell Johnson as Mr. Dussel. The shared sense of purpose among the cast is palpable and sanctifies the performance. The Hanukkah group scene at the end of Act I is a marvelous roller coaster of whipsawing emotions as we are treated to Anne’s gifts to a tipped chair, an intruder heard downstairs and a song in the near dark. Wonderful work all.
The physical production is serviceable. I especially liked Anne’s desk lamp where some of her diary entries are read, lighting design by Stephanie Van Sant. The costumes by Lynne Roblin are up to her usual very high standards. The student dresses, sweaters and Mrs. Van Daan’s worn fur coat all live in the same world convincingly.
This play begs to be told again and again and Eileen Schuyler and her troupe are doing an estimable service pouring their hearts into this story. At this time in our country’s history, the telling of this story about the primacy of art to survive and testify to the persecution and extinction of the “other” has never been more urgent nor salutary. The program notes came with a warning from Anne “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”