Sacramento Theatre Company’s new production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” a drama based on a Jewish teenager’s diary of her experience hiding from the Nazis during World War II, couldn’t be more timely or relevant.
It has been only two months since a mob of white nationalists led a nighttime march through the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia, carrying torches and chanting Nazi and anti-Semitic slogans, including, “Jews will not replace us.” According to news accounts, many of the marchers waved swastika flags and wore shirts emblazoned with quotes from Adolf Hitler. One banner declared: “Jews are Satan’s children.”
Charlottesville’s mayhem is far from an isolated incident. The Anti-Defamation League earlier this year reported an increase in the amount of harassment of American Jews, particularly since November’s presidential election. And, according to the ADL, California leads all states in reported acts of anti-Semitic vandalism, harassment and assaults.
Casey McClellan, the play’s director, acknowledges in program notes that “these recent events have reshaped the way I’ve thought about and approached” the telling of Anne Frank’s story. McClellan’s resulting interpretation is a powerful staging of an enduring tale of fear, hope and perseverance.
Writers Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett based their award winning drama – first performed in 1955 – on the actual diary that Anne Frank received as a present for her 13th birthday in 1942. The teenager filled its pages with her observations during the subsequent two years her family and four other Dutch Jews hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam. Their refuge was a secret apartment, concealed behind a hidden door and up a flight of stairs from Anne’s father’s business office in Amsterdam.
McClellan’s direction and staging offer the audience an intimate look into the growing tension and hostility – and occasional bursts of joy – that five adults and three teenagers experience in cramped quarters with little to eat or drink.
“We don’t need the Nazis to destroy us,” Anne’s father, Mr. Frank, says during one heated episode. “We’re destroying ourselves.”
The actors rarely leave the innovative, multilevel set. When scenes change, the stage goes dark and the actors can be seen changing costumes while Anne’s voice is heard over speakers, reading from her diary, filling in details and smoothing segues. The threat of the outside world is enhanced with ominous red and purple lighting, and periods of dialogue and silence are broken with sounds of gunfire, marching soldiers and air raid sirens.
This production highlights the strengths of Sacramento Theatre’s commitment to blending seasoned professional actors with participants in its Young Professionals Conservatory. (Each of the three teenage roles will be shared by two youth conservatory members throughout the run.)
Maddy Wood, 14, plays the titular character as precocious, headstrong and – frequently – hilariously rude. Wood portrays Anne’s transformation from a mouthy 13-year-old to a mature young lady during that two year period naturally and effortlessly. She is someone to watch for in future productions.
Owen Larson, another youth conservatory member, is convincingly awkward, sometimes painfully so, as Peter Van Daan, a member of the other family hiding with the Franks. When we first meet Peter, the 16-year-old hasn’t a clue about girls, hides away with his cat and gets tongue-tied around the more loquacious Anne. The two teens, however, evolve into kindred spirits as the play progresses.
As for the adult cast members, Michael Jenkinson and Dale Lisa Flint shine as Anne and sister Margot’s parents. Jenkinson’s Mr. Frank is a man struggling to shoulder the heaviest of burdens. Mastermind behind this hideaway, he must enforce all the rules for his sequestered community, if they are to live.
Flint’s Mrs. Frank engages in a controlled burn through much of the drama, keeping her emotions in check even as Anne pulls away from her. But she explodes when she and the others discover someone has been stealing from their supplies.
Eric Wheeler is at times frightening and funny as Peter’s father, Mr. Van Daan, a nicotine fiend who is struggling to live from cigarette to rationed cigarette. Wheeler’s character is a beaten man who either has lost his moral compass or never had one in the first place. Other performances are less credible and nuanced, including those from the actors who play the Christian accomplices – William Oberholtzer (Mr. Kraler) and Kirsten Myers (Miep).
Those familiar with Anne Frank’s life know she did not live to see 16, and the tragic fate of the shut-ins is staged in a potent postscript. Ultimately, however, this drama tells the story of an old soul in a young person’s body, a tender but indomitable spirit that continues to inspire.
“In spite of everything,” Anne says, “I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
The Diary of Anne Frank
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Main Stage, (1419 H St.)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 22
Information: 916-443-6722 or www.sactheatre.org
Running time: About two hours and 20 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission