A new take on ‘Anne Frank’

The stunning production of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,” now showing on the main stage of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, is simply a must-see, even for those well-acquainted with the material.

That’s partly because this 1997 adaptation by Wendy Kesselman admirably addresses and corrects any of the deficiencies of the 1955 Tony-award winning Broadway play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, which was based on the iconic memoir. Despite the acclaim the original play and the ensuing 1959 film garnered, both were criticized for allegedly playing down the more specifically Jewish references in order to render the play more “universal” and “secular.” Those charges were especially fierce by the late Meyer Levin, the Jewish novelist who had originally reviewed “The Diary of Anne Frank” for The New York Times and who prepared his own version of a stage play based on it. Levin went to his grave a bitter man, claiming that he had been swindled out of the rights to do the play by a cabal of leftist intellectuals led by Lillian Hellman who did not want the play to be ‘too Jewish.”


This latest version, directed with great skill and sensitivity by Rep Artistic Director Steve Woolf, feels vivid and compellingly original even though the overall story line remains familiar.

Even before the outstanding ensemble cast takes the stage, one is immediately struck by the overpowering set by scenic designer, John Ezell. In an earlier interview Woolf recalled that the actual annex in which the eight Jews were hidden from the Nazis for two years “seemed to have more room than you might expect, but was still confining when you realize the close quarters in which these eight people had to live.”

The set is designed in such a way that lots of separate activities can occur at once, just as they had unfolded in that dwelling from the summer of 1942, until the Nazis discovered the hidden Jews in 1944, at a time when the war had already turned against the Germans. All but Otto Frank, Anne’s father, would die in the death camps.

Lauren Orkus as Anne Frank, performing for the Rep for the first time, is spot-on perfect in the title role. The skilled and experienced actress captures the high-spirited, over-the-top enthusiasm of the gifted 13-year-old at the outset of the play, who matures into the more womanly 15-year-old. Through Orkus’ Anne we truly experience her coming-of-age, as she grapples with feelings of sexual longing and acts on a mutual crush with Peter van Daan (convincingly portrayed by Andrew Stroud). Many of the more explicit sexual references in Anne’s diary had been bowdlerized from the original Goodrich-Hackett version. With those references restored, Anne is elevated from the “plaster saint” to a fully realized, intelligent and sensitive young woman with an incredible gift for writing.

Anne retreats to the diary she had received from her father shortly before the family was forced to go into hiding at Otto Frank’s former place of business. The door to the hidden annex is blocked by a bookcase. Otto Frank’s former business partner, Mr. Kraler and their friend Miep Gies, an incredibly brave Amsterdam Christian woman who “does not like the Nazis” risk their lives to keep the Franks, the van Daans and the dentist Mr. Dussel hidden for that two-year period. Adding a poignant note to the timing of this production is the real-life death of Miep Gies, at the age of 100, one of the truly “Righteous Gentiles” just weeks before the play opened.

There are certainly plenty of specifically Jewish references throughout the play, including a touching Hanukkah celebration, where a music box is brought out that plays “Rock of Ages.” When Peter van Daan talks about possibly converting to Christianity to avoid anti-Semitism after the war, Anne protests, “I’d never turn away from who I am. I couldn’t. Don’t you realize that you’ll always be Jewish, Peter…in your soul?”

The “characters” in the play are, of course, actual people as seen through the eyes of a gifted, precocious teen-age writer who envisioned using her diary as the basis of a novel. Like many teen-age young women, Anne had a testy and sometimes stormy relationship with her depressed mother, Edith (Ann Talman), and an idealized, worshipful relationship with her father Otto (John Rensenhouse, in a powerful performance). She assigns fictional names to the other hidden Jews: the van Daans were actually the van Pels; the dentist Alfred Dussel was named Fredrich Pfeffer.

Peggy Billo is excellent in the challenging role of Mrs. van Daan, who alternates between utter selfishness and a genuine regard for the others in her midst. She clings to the fur coat given to her 17 years ago by her father. Peter Van Wagner as the explosive, tobacco-addicted Mr. van Daan is convincing, and Maggie Wetzel, who plays Anne’s introverted older sister Margot, does a good job imbuing her character with an interesting mix of meekness and strength. Margot’s role seems more filled out in the Kesselman revision than in the previous script.

Gary Wayne Barker manages to fully inhabit the crotchety dentist Mr. Dussel, the eighth person to be taken in at the request of Miep and Kraler. Anne is forced to share a crowded room with Dussel, who is frequently demanding and quarrelsome. Anne gives him the name “Dussel,” which is a German version of “Dunce.”

In addition to the breathtaking set, the production is greatly enhanced by the outstanding sound work of Rusty Wandall. Every little noise that emanates from the floor below could spell the bitter end for the hidden Jews. An air raid, which causes the house to tremble and terrifies its inhabits, is depicted with powerful realism under the direction of lighting designer Phil Monat.

The revised version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Rep will help assure that the words of this gifted and feisty “young girl” in Amsterdam will remain meaningful and immortal for generations to come.

The Diary of Anne Frank

When: Feb. 10-March 7

Where: Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves

Cost: $18-68

More info: 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org. The production is appropriate for children 13 and older.