Some say it never happened. They claim a Hitler-mandated Holocaust is a hoax.
Perhaps this is reason enough for the University of Arizona's Arizona Repertory Theatre to dust off the well-worn Diary of Anne Frank and give it new life. We might need a reminder of the well-documented fact that an estimated 12 million people—6 million of them Jews—were systematically, cruelly and openly murdered by the Nazis in an attempt to purify the gene pool.
Even a casual look around the planet today confirms that the driving force behind the Holocaust still exists when individuals, sects, tribes and/or religious zealots claim their superiority. So, yes, it's good to be reminded.
But the play is less about the Holocaust than it is about survival. It's about what happens when people are forced to hide, when people are crowded into a too-small space with little privacy and little food, and are forced to breathe the air of fear and uncertainty.
And it's about a teenage girl who, even as so many were being silenced, found a way to be heard.
Working from Anne's account of her life in hiding, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett penned the original play in 1955. (The 1959 movie was based on their script.) Goodrich and Hackett were criticized for downplaying the Jewish dimension of Anne's story, so Wendy Kesselman adapted their play in 1997 and incorporated Jewish references drawn from the original, unedited diary. It is her version that is presented here.
The Diary of Anne Frank chronicles the period between July 1942 and August 1944 in Amsterdam. Eight Jews are crowded into an attic, conducting their lives in secret as they try to elude the malicious reach of the Nazis.
A business operating downstairs by day dictates that the sequestered group must tiptoe, whisper, run no water (including flushing) and otherwise avoid any activity that might betray their presence. They are brought basic provisions by a couple of compassionate souls. They struggle with hunger and physical illness, and with each other. Eventually, they are discovered—probably betrayed by an informer—and marched to their ruin.
The troupe displays ample talent in bringing this familiar story to life, but it's important to remember that many in the cast are actors in training, and some must play characters twice their age.
Kevin Black and Leanne Whitewolf-Charlton are convincing as Anne's parents. Otto and Edith Frank are respected, caring people doing their best to protect their daughters, even as they deal with their own despair.
The bickering Van Daans (Luke Young and Chelsea Bowdren) conduct their family affairs in ways unfamiliar and disturbing to Anne and her sister, and their selfishness strains an already dire situation.
Javan Nelson is a quiet, sweet presence as their 16-year-old son, Peter. He enjoys with Anne the stirring of innocent romance; he also decides, disturbingly, that he would forfeit his identity as a Jew to fit into the world.
As Anne, sophomore Erin Asselta has the role of an acting student's dreams, and she delivers a spirited and touching performance. We meet Anne as a 13-year-old eager to participate in the "adventure" her family is being forced into. We observe her, as she observes herself in her diary, maturing physically and emotionally within the constraints of her odd world. She is outspoken, resourceful, thoughtful and relentlessly hopeful, even as the months and years accumulate.
ART's production is a thoughtful one, especially in its creation of an environment for both actors and audience. The actors, dressed in drab costumes, have been given very tight living quarters. Co-directors Harold Dixon and Jeremy Selim provide the elaborate traffic direction needed to keep the eight core characters moving without stumbling over each other.
The Tornabene Theatre can be configured in numerous ways. The design team made the choice to have the audience surround the set, underscoring the sense of imprisonment. The actors are under our scrutiny from all directions. In a way, the audience actually becomes part of the production's environment. It's a subtle but effective design.
The Diary of Anne Frank is far from a dreary drama. It is rich with life—with suspense, pain, humor and sorrow. We feel for these courageous folks; they're undeserving of their fate, but they meet it with determination and dignity.
In an epilogue, as an emotionally defeated Otto Frank recounts what happened to his loved ones, he thrusts Anne's diary into the air and declares, "This is all that is left." It is an act both tragic and triumphant.
What is left is not simply a stack of paper bound in a plaid cover. It is a witness to history. It is a brash assertion that an individual matters and is worthy of self-reflection. It is proof that one's personal history can echo the story of all who struggle with whatever conspires to steal their lives. And it is a record of the triumph of one person who refused to be a victim even as she was being heartlessly victimized.
That's all. That's what's left.
Arizona Repertory Theatre's production gets us there.