Stunning ‘Anne Frank’ opens NJT season

Samantha Moyer as Anne Frank in the New Jewish Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Photo: John Lamb

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“I want to live on, even after death.”

— Anne Frank, April 1944

The New Jewish Theatre has launched its 18th, or “chai,” season with a heart-stopping production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, significantly adapted (and much improved) by Wendy Kesselman. The play features a wide-ranging and emotionally vivid performance by Samantha Moyer in the title role, and especially strong performances by Bobby Miller as Anne’s father, Otto Frank; Taylor Steward as her older sister Margot Frank, and Margeau Steinau as Mrs. Van Daan.

The NJT faced a challenge similar to the one met by Stages St. Louis in its recent production of “Fiddler on the Roof” – familiarity with the subject matter. “The Diary of Anne Frank” is based on Frank’s actual diary, which was first published in 1947. The Goodrich-Hackett play was first produced in 1956 on Broadway, where it was widely acclaimed, but not by everyone. 


Meyer Levin, a prominent Jewish novelist who first reviewed Anne Frank’s immortal diary in the New York Times Book Review, thought he had secured an agreement from Otto Frank, who survived the Holocaust, to adapt the diary into a stage play, but Frank had sold the worldwide exclusive rights to Goodrich and Hackett. Levin and other reviewers criticized Goodrich and Hackett for “sanitizing” the script by purging references to Anne’s budding sexuality and for “de-Judaizing” the play by removing Jewish referen-ces to give it “universal” appeal.

In 1997, Kesselman adapted the original play to meet the legitimate objections raised by Levin and others by restoring Jewish aspects of the story as well as Anne’s growing feelings as a young woman. These additions, along with the inclusion of references from other writings by Anne and survivor accounts, make for a much stronger script. Natalie Portman starred as Anne Frank in the 1997 production, which won the Tony Award for best play. 

The revised script, a splendid cast, taut direction by Gary Wayne Barker and superb work by the entire production staff give the NJT’s production a verve and freshness that a simple reprise of the original Goodrich-Hackett version could not have achieved.

The story by now is as familiar to most Jewish audiences as the story of the Exodus from Egypt or the Purim story. Through Anne’s voice-over, we are reminded that in July 1942, her father, Otto, who adores and dotes on her, began to talk about going into hiding. Anne was born in Frankfort, Germany,  on June 12, 1929. 

After Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, the family immigrated to Holland. But Hitler invaded Holland on May 10, 1940. Five days later, the Dutch surrendered, the Germans arrived – and the trouble started for the Jews. 

On July 6, 1942, the Franks closed their Amsterdam apartment and walked in the pouring rain to 263 Prinsengracht, Otto Frank’s office building. Their hiding place, Anne writes, became the “secret annex,” an upstairs attic and storage area, where they stayed for the next two years until that fateful day, Aug. 9, 1944, when they were betrayed and arrested by the Nazis and sent to a series of concentration camps. 

Anne and her sister Margot were to die of typhus in Bergen-Belsen just days before the camp was liberated. Of the two families and the dentist who had hidden in the attic, only Otto Frank was to survive and return to Amsterdam, where he found Anne’s immortal diary among the items strewn on the floor after their arrest.

When the audience meets Anne Frank, she is an engaging, high-energy young woman of obvious intellect and an inability to stop talking, which earned her the nickname Miss Quack-Quack from one of her admiring teachers. 

The Franks are obligated to share the cramped annex with another family, the Van Daans, the fictional name Anne gave to the Van Pels and their son Peter. Later, the two families would have to accommodate another Jew who needed to hide, a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer, whom Anne derisively called Dussel, the German word for dunce.

Miller as Otto Frank is the benign commanding presence among the often quarreling residents in the cramped quarters of the secret annex. Tempers often flare. Anne, like all teens, is struggling not only with her captivity, but with her mother and with her growing “longings … for trust, love and caresses all the time I’ve been here.” Anne and her father are extremely close. He gives her a fountain pen to record her thoughts in the famous diary with the plaid cover.

The revised script and the accomplished acting humanize not only Anne, but all of the characters in the play. We share the fears of Anne’s mother, Edith Frank (Amy Loui), and admire the quiet supportiveness of Anne’s more introverted and quiet sister Margot. 

We feel empathy even for the oafish dentist Dussel (Terry Meddows), who longs for his Christian wife from whom he must separate for the duration of the war. We empathize with Mrs. Van Daan, who clings to the fur coat that had been a gift to her from her beloved father, and with Mr. Van Daan (Jason Grubbe), whose uncontrolled hunger causes him to raid the scarce food supply. 

Leo B. Ramsey is a standout as Peter Van Daan, who must overcome his initial shyness toward Anne to become, in effect, her first boyfriend. Stefanie Kluba is solid in her portrayal of Miep Gies, the anti-Nazi Dutch woman who helps hide the family from the infamous Green Police and who brings them food. Anne loves to hug Miep hard when the woman comes into the stuffy annex so that she can feel the chill of the outside air and imagine sunlight, a patch of blue sky and her favorite oak tree. 

All through the play, though the outcome is well-known and seemingly inevitable, the audience continues to root for the family to be liberated. Miep excitedly tells them that “the invasion” of Europe has started at Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, but liberation did not come to Amsterdam in time to avert the Green Police’s arrest of all of the occupants of the secret annex just two months later.

We again hear the wah-waw, wah-waw sound of the Green Police car coming to make their arrests. We see the horrific swastika armbands worn by the arresting officers who shout at the “dirty Jews” to “schnell!” –  to hurry to what they all surely know will be their deaths.

And yet, we are left with Anne Frank’s immortal words, in voice-over at the end of the play:

“In spite of everything, I still believe that most people are good at heart.”