Friday, March 8, 2019

BCT’s Diary of Anne Frank a Timely Reminder

Michael Rouches, Hayley Rousselle, Valarie Brown, Sarah Felder, Kraig Williams, Kate Donovan

By Tina Arth

One advantage of seeing a play again after a long time lag is that it can seem new, but when unexpected lines pop up it can be jarring.  Has the play changed, or am I entering my forgetful dotage years? When I saw Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production of The Diary of Anne Frank last weekend, I experienced several of these moments, and was relieved to learn that it wasn’t all me. BCT’s production uses Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1955 script, and includes material from the original diary that was omitted from earlier versions of the play. The new script reveals sides of Anne’s character that make her much more complex and, more important, authentically adolescent – and gives the entire play a chilling immediacy.

For those (one hopes) rare theatergoers who are unfamiliar with the all-too-true story, a brief overview: during the depths of World War II, the Frank family fled Germany to escape Hitler’s brutal treatment of Jews. Their safe haven in Amsterdam was lost when the Germans overran the Netherlands, so the family (father Otto, mother Edith, and daughters Margot and Anne) went into hiding in a secret annex above Otto’s office building. They were joined by another family, Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan and their son Peter, as well as Mr. Dussel, a local dentist. Assisted by two Dutch Gentile friends, Mr. Kraler and Miep, who brought them both food and news of the outside world, they stayed in hiding for over two years, until they were discovered by the Nazis in 1944 and deported to concentration camps. Of the group, only Otto Frank survived the camps. For her 13th birthday, Anne received a diary, and she used it to record the experience – and this diary and the subsequent adaptations serve as a timeless warning about the horrors of racism and anti-Semitism in a totalitarian regime.

There is no shortage of talent on the BCT stage for this production, and Director Steve Holgate has drawn some really fine performances from a mostly veteran cast. I was especially moved seeing Hayley Rousselle (Anne) and Valarie Brown (Edith) play mother/daughter roles again seven years after they first teamed up in BCT’s 2012 production of The Miracle Worker.  It is wonderful watching Rousselle in the title role – she delivers a fine mix of youthful exuberance, adolescent angst, and budding sexuality, and definitely makes us believe that she is the kind of 13 year old who could have written the iconic diary. Brown amazed me with the subtlety of her performance – she manages, without histrionics, to convey the despair of their situation while maintaining a steely exterior, and it is abundantly clear that she understands the stress and power of maternal love. One of my favorite moments (from among a large pool) is the scene where Anne abandons the mother/daughter tension and really comforts her grieving mother.

One of the toughest roles is that of Margot, played by Sarah Felder. Margot is so quiet and restrained as the well-behaved older sister that she is in danger of disappearing around Anne’s gigantic presence – and Felder is so successful that her performance initially seems flat. However, as the play progresses we begin to watch her understated but strongly felt reactions to the hell around her, and to mourn the full life she will never have.  As father Otto, Michael Rouches is absolutely solid, calmly playing the role of peacemaker, confidant, and pillar of strength – which gives his anguished closing monologue additional power as Rouches strips away Otto’s mask and reveals his inner hell.

Patricia Alston’s portrayal of Miep is another sleeper – we don’t really know who she is at first, but by the time she brings Anne her new red shoes Alston really expresses the depth of her love and commitment to the prisoners in the annex. Jacob Alexander creates a thoroughly believable Peter, wracked by the awkwardness of a reclusive teen trapped with his less-than-loveable parents and a group of strangers – another of my favorite moments is the scene in the attic where he hastily (and poignantly) plants a kiss on the back of Anne’s head.

The set is generally effective – the limited space of the BCT stage is actually an asset, since the goal is to create a small, crowded space. Erin and Stacie Looney’s costume design nicely captures the era and social class of the characters, and Miep’s ability to change her clothes in different scenes highlights the difference between her life and those of the Jews in the annex. However, the lack of authenticity in the costuming of the Nazis is problematic – in trench coats and fedoras the three men simply do not express the ghastly menace of the deadly raid.

While there were some children in the audience, the show is probably inappropriate for many in the younger set – parents may want to explain things in advance and gauge their kiddos’ reactions before bringing them to the theater.

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank runs through Saturday, March 16th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, with 7:30 pm shows on Friday and Saturday and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday, March 10.

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