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Though it's often staged at high schools, The Diary of Anne Frank—with its heavy Holocaust references, clunky diary passages, and complex character dynamics—is actually a difficult trick to turn. Those producing the 1955 drama can easily get bogged down by the gravitas of the material, forgetting the play's all-too-human inhabitants. That humanity isn't overlooked in the production at Writers Theatre, but director Kimberly Senior ultimately misses the mark, giving us a happy family in place of the diary's complicated individuals.
We start promisingly enough, with a set replicating the actual floor plans of the secret annex, a cramped, dark space traversed by eight people searching in vain for normalcy amid the depredations of the Nazi era. One of the show's major problems comes with the miscasting of Anne's father, Otto, the annex's only survivor. I'd argue there's a certain solemnity involved in portraying Otto Frank, a man weighed down by sacrifice, and Sean Fortunato treats the part with unsettling frivolity. (He also seems too young—Otto was 53 when he took his family into hiding.) That casualness with the role doesn't help his scenes with Sophie Thatcher, who as Anne has mastered the art of flitting about but can't pull off the show's diary passages, which end up sounding wooden and one-note.
And this might not be Thatcher's fault. Senior is using Wendy Kesselman's 1997 adaptation of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich's original. Kesselman's script indicates that some of the diary's passages are meant to be voice-overs, and in this staging that's handled by having Thatcher deliver them all directly to the audience. Interrupting the annex's real-time action, these diary pauses begin to feel like the device they are, consistently diffusing the play's mounting tension.
But there are places where the material resounds, as when Edith Frank discovers Mr. van Daan gorging on the annex's limited supply of bread and reacts violently, rendering Lance Baker's snippy, brooding van Daan helpless. The aftermath, a scene between Baker and Heidi Kettenring, who's equally compelling as Mrs. Van Daan, is one of the show's best. In other places, though, it feels as if Senior hasn't done her homework. According to Anne's diary, her parents, Otto and Edith, were distant from one another—Anne at one point even speculates that their marriage was the product of an arrangement rather than a romance. Here, Senior has Edith throwing her arms around Otto, who returns her affection with a kiss on the forehead. These moments ring hollow, and end up being missed opportunities, both for honest character development, and for us, the audience, to better understand Anne's infamous dislike of her mother.
The diary's depth extends beyond its World War II context. And this production insists on keeping us close to the surface. But ultimately, the play itself is limited by the 1950s optimism that colors Anne's 1940s wartime reflections. A director can only work with what she's got.
The Diary of Anne Frank Through 6/28: Tue-Wed 7:30 PM, Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6 PM, Writers Theatre, Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon, Glencoe, 847-242-6000, writerstheatre.org, $35-$70.