It is a tragic irony that an anonymous teenage girl, one of nameless millions who perished in German concentration camps during World War II, a child who surely never so much as met a publisher, should have emerged as the most famous writer of the twentieth century. Yet Anne Frank's diary, primarily penned in an Amsterdam attic during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, has served to humanize the horrors of the Holocaust for generations of readers. First published in English in 1952 under the title The Diary of a Young Girl, the posthumous memoir was adapted into a play that opened on Broadway in 1955. The Diary of Anne Frank by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett has since been seen around the world.
Then in 1997, in a highly unusual turn of events, this proven stage adaptation was itself adapted. According to the New York Times, the new text by Wendy Kesselman was designed to "emphasize the story's Jewish ethnicity." Some viewers might prefer this revised version, which is currently on view at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; others not. But one thing is certain: This is not the play that won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, and it should not be advertised as such. Extensive changes have reshaped the very intent of the 1955 script. Gone, for instance, is the original opening scene, in which patriarch Otto Frank, the lone member of his family to survive the concentration camps, returns from Auschwitz a broken man and is given his daughter's diary by Miep Gies, one of the Frank family protectors. At risk to her own life, Gies had saved Anne's writings after the family was arrested. In this new version, the heroic Gies (who died last month at age 100) has no connection to the diary. It is an inexplicable and disturbing omission.
Perhaps Kesselman's alterations would matter more if the Rep production were of interest. But this staging, directed by Steven Woolf, is a disappointment on almost every count. It lacks a sense of time and place. For twenty-five months eight people lived as fugitives in an attic annex under the most appalling constraints and deprivations; every day they knew that their lives were at stake. Where in this comfortable mounting is the risk? Where are the pressures that accompany captivity? Late in Act Two — and two years into the ordeal — the characters' stylish pajamas and bathrobes look as if they had just been purchased at Harrods.
In his program note, the gifted scenic designer John Ezell twice uses the adjective cramped to describe the actual attic, which is now a much-visited museum. But there's no sense of confinement on Ezell's spacious set. Eight actors don't even begin to fill it, much less feel cramped. The environment should help the viewer to visualize the pressures these people are enduring. Instead the actors stroll around the dining area as if they're visitors at a rustic hunting lodge.
Ultimately, any production of The Diary of Anne Frank must rest on the slender shoulders of the actress in the challenging title role. Anne is, as she describes herself in her diary, "a bundle of contradictions." Although we need to see the spirit and spunk of a teenager who is full of life, we also must understand that Anne is remarkable beyond her years. She must suffuse the evening with her spirit and soul. But mostly what we get from the performance by Lauren Orkus is chirpy — and American chirpy at that. When, midway through Act Two, Orkus struts around in a pair of ruby-red shoes, she seems more akin to Dorothy Gale of Kansas than Anne Frank of Amsterdam.
The other actors are doing their best. Thirty minutes into Act One when Gary Wayne Barker as Mr. Dussel, the dentist who is the last to seek haven in the attic, arrives, he emanates a palpable sense of dread and foreboding. For a few intense minutes, the evening's high stakes are felt. But like the others, even Barker is eventually undone by the inconsistencies of a character who has been patched together by one author too many.Click here for a complete list of St. Louis stage capsules.