Chicago Theatre Review
We Must Never Forget
Diary of Anne Frank – Writers Theatre
As audiences enter the cozy Books on Vernon, in downtown Glencoe, they won’t suspect the drama, humor and unthinkable horror awaiting them in the next 100 minutes. Someone leads you through a labyrinth of hallways, down some steps and through an enormous bookcase into the secret annex that will become the attic hiding place for the Frank and van Daan families. Anne’s remarkable diary, filled with heartache and hope, has become a world classic and remains one of the strongest reminders of the horror that triggered WWII. It’s a testament to the power of the human spirit, as told through the eyes of a spunky, 13-year-old girl who, in the end, still believed that deep down inside people were good at heart.
Jack Magaw’s rustic, environmental setting is authentically-designed and looks like the actual Amsterdam location. Nestled within the intimate 60-seat theatre space, audiences are never more than a few feet away from the action, making this production feel as realistic and claustrophobic for theatergoers as it was for the people who actually lived this story. Between Magaw’s incredible set, Sarah Hughey’s subtle, but moody lighting and Josh Schmidt’s powerful sound design, the ambiance created for this story is pitch-perfect. Add to these elements an array of period costumes, created by the talented Nan Zabriskie, and Nick Heggestad’s carefully chosen properties, both with minute attention to detail, and you have the makings of an historically accurate piece of storytelling.
Kimberly Senior’s direction of this play is vigorous and stirring, heartfelt and brimming with love. She focuses her audience’s attention on a particular scene, while keeping small, unobtrusive, everyday events going on in every part of the annex. In one instance, the theatergoer is intent upon Anne’s conversation with Mr. Dussel, inside the tiny room they share, while Mrs. Frank and Mrs. van Daan are in the main room busily preparing dinner. Peter and Margot are at the dining table, stressing over schoolwork with Mr. Frank, while Mr. van Daan is glued to the radio and enjoying a precious cigarette. In Ms. Senior’s very naturalistic production, life goes on.
Playwright Wendy Kesselman, Tony-nominated for her 1997 adaptation of the moving, The Diary of a Young Girl, sports a cast of 13, the largest of any show at Writers Theatre. The cast features several company veterans, as well as many making their first appearance in Glencoe. Local young actress Sophie Thatcher brilliantly inhabits the title character. The talented Ms. Thatcher is not only age-appropriate for this role, but she fairly bursts with all the adolescent angst and enthusiasm found within the pages of Anne Frank’s diary. Sean Fortunato, one of Chicago’s favorite actors, brings a quiet dignity and loving compassion for his family and friends, as Otto Frank, Anne’s father. He provides a calm authority as the families’ accepted leader. Kristina Valada-Viars plays Anne’s mother, Edith, with honest, heartbreaking passion. As the family’s nurturer, Edith is challenged by Anne and the others, resulting in constant, heartbreaking frustration. All the while Ms. Valada-Viars brings her family love and understanding. Lila Morse is charming and sweet as Margot, Anne’s shy but wiser older sister, and her scenes with the family touch the heart.
Lance Baker and Heidi Kettenring bring eloquence and stature to their portrayals of Mr. and Mrs. van Daan. Two affluent, childishly selfish adults, for this couple giving up their everyday life seems even more pronounced than for the others. They argue and complain making Peter, their shy, 16-year-old son, seem like the more mature family member. Antonio Zhiurinskas makes an auspicious debut with this company as Peter, and his journey to young adulthood is gentle and honest. He and Ms. Thatcher share some of the finest moments in this play. Kevin Gudahl is a stern Mr. Dussel, the Jewish dentist the two families reluctantly agree to take in, after they’ve been in hiding for just a short time. Mr. Gudahl evolves into an irritable, complaining houseguest forced to sacrifice his love of privacy for an austere communal life. Leah Karpel and Coburn Goss are very good as Miep and Mr. Kraler, the two generous, gentile angels who hide the families and provide them with food, cigarettes and news from the outside world.
Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, Wendy Kesselman’s stirring adaptation of this literary classic boasts both excellent direction and superb supporting artistry contributed by a top-notch technical team. Told by a cast of accomplished, reliable actors, all the heartbreaking moments from young Anne Frank’s years in hiding come to vivid life. This is a must-see production for all audiences, both young and old alike, reminding us of a chapter in history we must never, ever forget.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 5-May 31 by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.