The Diary of Anne Frank has become one of the sacred texts of the Holocaust, but its author was in many ways a typical teenager.
An exceptionally bright girl, to be sure, and a natural journalist, but Anne—despite the harrowing circumstances of her plight, hiding from the Nazis in a cramped, overcrowded annex for two years before finally being discovered—still experienced the same frustrating pettiness, mood swings, sexual urges and inability to see beyond her immediate circumstances that mark many a middle schooler today.
That plain fact was largely obscured in the original stage adaptation of Frank’s diary, written in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett; that version, with the wounds of World War II still fresh, the playwrights nervous to go too overtly Jewish, and Anne’s father, Otto Frank, getting final say, made a saint of the young author.
Wendy Kesselman’s mid-’90s revision of the script, which interpolates some of the more humanizing material from the diary that surfaced after Otto’s death, is notable largely for its depiction of teens remaining teens even under duress: Anne shows off annoyingly, resents her mother irrationally and feints toward flirtation with Peter, the shy son of the other family sharing their close quarters.
Kimberly Senior’s new production for Writers Theatre smartly captures that sense of claustrophobia. Jack Magaw’s set design, in the theater’s auxiliary venue at the back of Glencoe’s Books on Vernon, forces us to enter through a twisty, makeshift labyrinth, cleverly evoking the hidden space, before seating us in the thick of the action.
Yet this Writers revival doesn’t quite evoke the necessary sense of ever-looming danger outside. Even the moment when the occupants panic at the sound of thieves downstairs passes a bit too quickly. And much of the dialogue, even in Kesselman’s revision, still has the ring of artificial pathos with which a teenage diarist, and her post-war, mid-century hagiographers, might imbue it.
As Anne, Evanston middle schooler Sophie Thatcher physically registers her subject’s wide range of moods, but her character’s inner life feels like it’s stuck on precocious. She has a nice rapport with Antonio Zhiurinskas’s Peter, though he too always seems to be playing shyness or attraction rather than living it.
The adults in the cast offer more variation, unsurprisingly, with densely layered turns from Kristina Valada-Viars as Mrs. Frank and the interestingly low-key Lance Baker as Peter’s father, Mr. van Daan; Heidi Kettenring goes a little welcomely quirky as Mrs. van Daan.
Still, while this production hits all the right marks, it falls just a bit short in the gut-reaction department. At the performance I attended, I was seated next to a young man—younger than Anne when we meet her at 13—who’d evidently visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and frequently whispered moments of recognition to the woman I took to be his grandmother. That he was excited, but not terribly affected, by these recognitions suggests the play may have come to seem as static as a museum piece.
Writers Theatre at Books on Vernon. By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Adapted by Wendy Kesselman. Directed by Kimberly Senior. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins.