The Diary of Anne Frank
Presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre
Through March 21 at TPAC’s Polk Theater
Gary Hoff’s set for Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s new production of The Diary of Anne Frank is yet another artistic achievementmaybe too much of one. His magnificent multilevel realization of the attic hiding place for a small group of Amsterdam Jews who are avoiding the Nazis seems to have the scale of a tony big-city loft. Hence, the cast playing out this thoroughly professional staging of the well-known drama operates with plenty of room, even as their characters’ food supply dwindles and their tempers run short. It all looks grandbut should it? Hoff’s set appears too conventionally spacious and too well-lit to convey the claustrophobia and darkness of the Frances Goodrich/Albert Hackett script, which is enhanced by some relatively minor interpolations by adapter Wendy Kesselman.
It’s true enough that young Anne Frank’s diary of events in this tense two-year period during World War II has ultimately inspired the world with a message of hope: that, despite the horrors of fascism and holocaust, there is an essential goodness in the human heart. Yet it seems that this uplifting credo needs to emerge out of the otherwise restrained, repressive and dismal surroundings of the Frank and Van Daan families’ close-quarters captivity. Director Brant Pope mounts the play quite admirably in the setting he’s been handed, but frankly, the players look too darn comfortable.
The strained interpersonal dynamics come off well enough, though, and there isn’t a single performance that veers off the path of telling the tale with sincerity and bringing young Anne’s pluckiness and warmth to the fore. Nicole Winston has the title role, and she’s a charming actress, if possibly a bit tall to play a 13-year-old. Her performing skills make it easy enough to overlook the technical question.
Her support is endlessly good, too. Mathew Carlton’s reading as Otto Frank, Anne’s father, is a little too pious at first, but he settles into an agreeably warm, avuncular rhythm. Nan Gurley is well cast as Mrs. Frank, and she hits the right concerned tone all evening long. Julie Alexandria is sister Margotolder than Anne but without the same energy and fireand she subtly realizes her humility.
Peter Bretz and Evelyn Blythe are excellent as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. Bretz offers us convincing world-weariness, and when the pressure of the situation reaches a breaking point, he reveals fully the selfishness that he has been hinting at all evening. Blythe is especially goodpossibly the most colorful performance of the showbreathing new life and meaning into a role that many might only remember from Shelley Winters’ blobby, haranguing Hollywood characterization. David Ian Lee is their son, Peter, and he too does some welcome underplaying as a confused 16-year-old; his emergence as Anne’s close friend is sensitively rendered.
As Mr. Dussel, the dentist who arrives later in the play to seek refuge with the others, Wm. Daniel File is sublime, effectively understating his crotchetiness and eventually proving to be a friendly and lovable presence. Two of Nashville’s finest regulars, Denice Hicks and Cecil Jones, play Miep Gies and Mr. Kraler, respectively, the comrades who have organized the hiding-place scheme. Their contributions are commendable as well.
Among the Nazis who enter at play’s end and break the spell of hope is Jeremy Childs, a serious Nashville writing/acting/directing talent who is basically relegated to a last-minute cameo and utters not a single word. But he does look very good in his black uniform.
Polly Boersig’s period costumes are generally well-conceived and -executed, though it seems questionable that Anne would be wearing saddle shoes in 1942. Darin Karnes efficiently handles the sound design, which includes the use of contemporary radio broadcasts and eerie police sirens.
A well-worn dramatic vehicle, The Diary of Anne Frank doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. Yet this version is successfully wrought on many levels, thus affirming its historical importance and essential reverence.
If only its bright light had emerged from beyond a darker horizon.
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