When the Nazis hauled off Anne Frank to the death camps
on Aug. 4, 1944, she had composed but one diary. The first part of what
happened to the diary is widely known. Anne’s father Otto survived the
camps, found the diary and published it in 1947, whereupon it became
and has remained a huge international best-seller. The husband-and-wife
team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett adapted the diary into
a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage drama (1955), the basis of a widely
admired film by director George Stevens (1959). Goodrich and Hackett’s
play was revamped for television twice (1967 and 1980) and was long a
staple in high school and community theaters, a special favorite for
many years at Todd Ellis’ Syracuse Civic Theatre.
One from the heart: Arielle Lever channels the title role in Syracuse Stage’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
What is less well known is that Otto Frank’s handling of the diary has
long been suspect, and that several influential commentators have
reviled Goodrich and Hackett. Now at Syracuse Stage, Wendy Kesselman’s
revision of The Diary of Anne Frank, first produced in 1997, addresses a host of these criticisms.
While it is perfectly understandable,
even admirable, that a grieving father would want his daughter seen in
the best light, Otto unmistakably censored Anne’s diary. Cut were Anne’s budding sense of her own sexuality (this was her private
diary, after all), and her antagonism toward her mother Edith Frank.
Kesselman restores both themes. Aging from 12 to 15 during the writing
of her diary, Anne begins to menstruate, a cause for deep concern while confined to a small space with one W.C. (water closet).
Additionally, her breasts begin to
swell, a signal of vast hormonal changes flowing within. She wonders
what it would be like to touch the breasts of another girl. For adults
in the audience these words make her humanity more vivid. They may,
however, cause moments of anxiety for teachers bringing middle school
classes to matinees.
Similarly, Anne finds her mother (played
by Maureen Silliman) most unsympathetic. As matrophobia goes, Anne’s a
long way from Christina Crawford, but as a dramatic character she gains
here by seeming less of a saint.
Much thornier is the issue of whether Anne Frank’s story is universal or particular. In a memorable New Yorker essay
of the early 1990s, Cynthia Ozick blasted Goodrich and Hackett and the
whole Anne Frank industry for sentimentality and sweetening the horrors
of the Holocaust. Some production history explains her anger. Early on
novelist Meyer Levin (Compulsion), who had helped get the diary
published in America, presented his own stage version of the text to
Otto Frank. He in turn ran it by the imperious playwright Lillian
Hellman, herself highly secularized and assimilated, who pronounced it
That led to non-Jews Goodrich and Hackett, best-known for their work in Hollywood, such as contributions to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. They never wrote another successful stage play. In their hands The Diary of Anne Frank can feel like a domestic comedy/melodrama, which had been their forte.
Vain, silly Mrs. Van Daan (Catherine
Lynn Davis) with her fur coat becomes the most interesting
characterization of the lot. Little wonder that Shelley Winters won an
Academy Award for that role in the movie version, the only cast member
so recognized. In Kesselman’s revision she becomes a Jewish woman. She,
Anne and all the rest enter the stage with large yellow stars sewn to
their clothing. Anne struggles to pull hers off and finds that her
mother has sewn it on so tightly the mark of the threads will remain on
Kesselman’s re-Judaization of The Diary of Anne Frank
not only answers some of Ozick’s criticism but greatly changes the tone
of the drama and inverts the implications of Anne’s most enduring line.
Some time after Anne’s sister Margot (Alexa Silvaggio) announces that
she would like to become a nurse in some faraway place, like Palestine,
Peter Van Daan (Brad Koed) complains that if he were to survive this
sorry mess he would avoid trouble in the future by just not letting
people know he is Jewish. Anne immediately declares her pride in her
heritage. In the uncensored diary, though, she worries that antagonism to her identity in later life might cause people not to recognize her talents.
Where Kesselman’s Diary of Anne Frank really
spins on its axis is the dramatization of the line, “ . . . I still
believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
In Goodrich and Hackett it’s a feel-good line worthy of, well, Frank
Capra. In this version we barely hear the words at all. They’re in
voice-over, drowned out by the thumping jackboots of the Nazis who have
just invaded the hiding place, are upending the furniture and pummeling
the terrified families, including Anne.
Changed also is Otto Frank’s epilogue.
Goodrich and Hackett had him portray a plucky Anne who could enjoy the
fresh air of the death camps. Kesselman pulls no punches. Her Otto
(Joel Leffert) glistens his cheeks with real tears as he relates Anne’s
ugly, painful, pitiless end.
Political and ethnic concerns aside,
Goodrich and Hackett’s adaptation was due for revision, if only because
it wears so poorly. Its popularity rests on its teachability of lessons
on intolerance and genocide, whether it be the Holocaust or Rwanda, not
its artistic merits. As the portrait of a girl entering adulthood, it’s
a long drop down from The Glass Menagerie, The Member of the Wedding or even A Taste of Honey. Too many plaster saints and characters without arcs to traverse.
Cutting the piety, Kesselman also
introduces dramatic surprises. Banished is Anne the soulful damosel, a
well of sensitivity. Doe-eyed Millie Perkins in the 1959 movie poster
looks like a Tennyson maiden. The real Anne Frank was short of her 13th
birthday when she began her diary and a bit of a hoyden.
Syracuse University Drama Department
student Arielle Lever, in a career-making debut, bristles with coltish
energy. She mocks, she teases, she rolls on her tummy with her feet in
the air like the kid Anne was. When the schlemiel dentist Mr. Dussel
(Stuart Zagnit) complains of how irritating it is to share a room with
Anne, we’re on his side. Demythologizing Anne aids the drama. We
believe Anne told the truth in her diary, and all these things,
including character flaws, really happened.
Director Timothy Bond draws well on the
company’s resources for one of the biggest productions of the year,
with Marjorie Bradley-Kellogg’s three-level set, Les Dickert’s
mood-sharpening lighting and Lydia Tanji’s authentic costumes. Jonathan
Herter’s sound design brings brutal cattle trains on stage. Bond
exercises tight control of tone and pacing in Kesselman’s more volatile
text and still delivers a wallop with Kesselman’s darker conclusion.
Bond pulls nuanced, affecting
performances from each player, including those in unrewarding roles.
Among the most striking come from familiar faces: Catherine Lynn Davis
(Cordelia and the Fool in King Lear, 2006) as the volatile Mrs. Van Daan, Stuart Zagnit (Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, 2007)
as the dentist, and SU Drama faculty member Leslie Noble as the gutsy
Gentile Miep, the only saint left in the Kesselman version. In this
Syracuse Stage production, Bond and Kesselman tell a well-worn story
with new urgency.
This production runs through May 3. See Times Table for information.