Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
It happened again. No matter how many times we’ve heard the story of Anne Frank or pondered the evil that swept Europe in World War II, the simple writings of a young girl retain the power to engage, involve and move us even now, an incredible seventy years later.
It happened Friday evening as Flint Youth Theatre’s The Diary of Anne Frank opened to a packed house in the Elgood Theatre. Performing in a space that must have closely mimicked the actual hiding space, the stage was filled with six levels to depict the two story “Secret Annex” above Mr. Frank’s store. Usually this playing area is open and only suggestive of location, but this cramped and busy set perfectly projected the confinement and lack of privacy that was endured.
Director Jeremy Winchester’s troupe does a spectacular job of communicating the myriad emotions the group must have experienced during the two years they were in hiding. This tightly knit ensemble projects the constant fear, the angst, the joy, the anger, the jealousy, and the impossible desire to maintain a sense of normalcy in the face of their unthinkable situation with remarkable precision.
Not a stranger to the FYT stage, Sam Carter’s portrayal of Anne is heartfelt. She is about the same age as Anne was and clearly relates to her struggles and frustration as the character endures a range of emotion from mischievous to terrified, from exasperated to in love.
Brian Haggard anchors this production with his steadfast and sturdy characterization of Anne’s father, Otto Frank. His calm belief in the family’s ability to survive this horror is always evident even as he realizes the tremendous risks better than the others do. His rendering of this man as peacemaker, parent, husband, friend, and authority figure to the seven others for whom he is ultimately responsible is pristine.
There isn’t a weak link in this ensemble, so a cameo of each is in order, beginning with Mr. VanDaan, a business associate of Otto Frank, and his wife and son who joined them in the annex hideout. Mark Gmazel brings VanDaan’s weaknesses to the fore while allowing us to pity but understand his straits. As his wife, Kristina Lakey exudes both the fear and the independent spirit that surely warred inside her. She is insufferable, attractive, and yet we completely empathize with her.
Peter VanDaan (George Lieber) is terrific as the young son plopped into confinement with a strange family and a brassy young girl he’s watched from afar. Lieber brings this character through a palpable and confident maturation process over the two-year incarceration.
There is a rift between Anne and her mother. Lindsay Duso plays Edith Frank with an air of incredible concern and maternal anguish. She was not ready for this sudden leap into hiding and Anne’s moments of teenage exuberance distress her. She is stressed and tense throughout, and eventually she erupts.
Anne’s older sister Margot’s sudden conscription to a work camp prompted the escape. Another FYT young veteran, Layla Meillier exudes Margot’s confusion and terror at what she just escaped, plus her sibling strife where Anne is concerned. Quiet, withdrawn, then finally relaxed and hopeful, Meillier brings Margot to the brink.
Finally, Gary Jones is Mr. Dussel, a dentist who joins the group a bit later. He is a stuffy fellow, likeable but self-focused, who must share a room with Anne. His presence brings a sense of balance.
Bary Lehr and Mary Paige Rieffel play Mr. Kraler and Miep Gies, conduits to the outside world. They bring food and supplies and keep the group afloat as best they can.
We all know how the story ends, but this Wendy Kesselman adaptation of the original by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett crafts an emotional climax. With the Franks sure of liberations after the D-Day landings, and the youngsters planning their futures … well, we won’t spoil it for you.
This is a moving and often startling production. It’s been 70 years since Anne Frank died, but her legacy endures and continues to impact young and old alike. It is so very worth seeing.
The Diary of Anne Frank continues at Flint Youth Theatre through May 10. For tickets and more information please contact the box office at 810-237-1530 or online at www.FlintYouthTheatre.org