The Diary of Anne Frank at Arctic – Moving Story, Superb Performances, Flawed Script

The diary of Anne Frank is among the most widely read historical documents of the 20th century, but its provenance is often misunderstood. There has been endless debate about why this one particular diary by one seemingly ordinary teenaged girl has become the iconic and most recognizable narrative of the Nazi Holocaust. Hundreds if not thousands of similar personal accounts exist, written by those who survived and those who did not, but none achieved resonance in popular understanding comparable to this one.

The basic facts are well known: Anneliese (“Anne”) (Isabelle Assaf) with her Jewish family, including her father Otto (Christopher Ferreira), her mother Edith (Carolyn Coughlin), and her older sister Margot (Aden Duffy), went into hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam on July 5, 1942, occupying a “secret annex” in the “back house,” one of Otto’s buildings that housed his business. A few weeks earlier, Anne had selected and received as a 13th birthday present a bound blank diary. Her first entry (a month before she went into hiding or even knew she would) was addressed, as would be her custom, to the diary itself: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” Anne’s goal in life was to be a writer, and she explicitly says so in her diary: “Whether these leanings towards greatness (insanity!) will ever materialize remains to be seen, but I certainly have the subjects in my mind. In any case, I want to publish a book called Het Achterhuis [“The House Behind”] after the war. Whether I shall succeed or not, I cannot say, but my diary will be a great help.”

Over the next week, the Frank family was joined in hiding by other Jews to whom Anne in her diary would assign pseudonyms, and it is by these names they have become known: her father’s business partner Putti van Daan (Bob Mignarri), his wife Petronella (Katherine Kimmel), their son Peter (Jonah Coppolelli) who was two years older than Anne, and, after four months, by the van Daan’s family dentist, Alfred Dussel (Jeff Blanchette). They lived in hiding, aided by the Dutch resistance and Otto’s faithful non-Jewish employees Hermine (“Miep”) Gies (Madison Frances Weinhoffer) and Mr Kraler (Mario Sasso), for more than two years until they were discovered and arrested by Nazi police on August 4, 1944; although it has traditionally been assumed that they were betrayed by some unknown person, recent research suggests that the Nazis may have stumbled upon them while investigating ration fraud. Of the eight, only Otto Frank survived the war, Margot at age 19 and Anne at age 15 dying of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp a few weeks before it was liberated in April 1945 by British forces.

Director Rachel Hanauer has assembled for the Arctic production a skilled cast headed by the extraordinary 15-year-old Isabelle Assaf as Anne, called upon to carry many scenes entirely alone while seated at her small writing desk and speaking to her diary using a remarkable facility and range of expression. Christopher Ferreira, as her father Otto, is effectively a co-lead, the central axis around which the entire play turns due to his wisdom and calm, repeatedly serving as peacekeeper and peacemaker in the tense circumstance of involuntary communal living for more than two years. Mignarri as Putti and Blanchette as Dussel are explosive neurotics who prove destabilizing at times, often needing the protective leadership of Otto. (Blanchette seems to be on a streak of playing neurotics at Arctic, after his recent turn in Breaking Legs.) Coughlin as the depressive Edith has an excellent scene where she confesses her hopelessness and despair. Kimmel as Petronella is realistically exasperated by everything from her husband to the rotten potatoes she is expected to cook. The 15-year-old Coppolelli as Peter has just the right mix of confidence and awkwardness as his character grows from 16 to 18. Duffy as Margot effectively commands a role that often relies primarily upon silence. Weinhoffer as Gies and Sasso as Kraler do what they can with roles that offer little to do. While a flawed script (for reasons explained below), Arctic’s The Diary of Anne Frank is an expertly performed production of a moving story that is familiar to many.

First entry in the diary of Anne Frank, in her own handwriting, 12 June 1942. English translation: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”

First entry in the diary of Anne Frank, in her own handwriting, 12 June 1942. English translation: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.”

Anne’s diary, left behind when she was arrested, was quickly hidden by the woman mainly responsible for protecting and supplying those in hiding, Miep Gies, who after the end of the war when it became known that Anne was dead, turned it over, unread, to Anne’s father. While still in hiding, Anne herself in 1944 began rewriting and revising her diary with a goal of eventual publication. Anne’s father would eventually further edit the source material, synthesizing it into a version that was published in the original Dutch in 1947 and in English translation in 1952. At the suggestion of Lillian Hellman to Otto Frank, Hellman’s friends Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett – a non-Jewish married couple who had worked on the scripts for It’s a Wonderful Life and Father of the Bride – adapted the English translation of the diary into a play that was a substantial success on Broadway in 1955, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and was filmed in 1959. It was the Broadway play that brought the book to the enormous public attention it enjoys today.

That the diary came to be well known in a form very different from that in which it was written is beyond dispute. The play that eventually ended up on Broadway thrilled audiences but appalled historians. As the New York Times’ Frank Rich pointed out, “In the end, the Broadway ‘Anne Frank’ that catered so well to the escapist America of its time did a far greater injustice to the Holocaust than it did to [anyone trying to publish a more faithful version]. It so determined the world’s reading of the diary that even today… both the Oxford and Cambridge reference volumes on the American theater erroneously state that the play’s sentimentally optimistic curtain line – ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart’ – is also the diary’s last line. (In fact, Anne went on to write of the ‘suffering of millions’ and other subjects for five or six pages.) As Hannah Arendt and Telford Taylor (the American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials) noted when the Broadway ‘Anne Frank’ opened to great acclaim and mass weeping in Germany, the play also allowed German audiences to escape complicity in the Holocaust by constricting the story to the Netherlands and keeping the perpetrators of the genocide offstage.”

But the real driving force behind changing the tone of the diary are those whose worldview simply cannot accommodate an outlook other than optimistic, including Anne’s father, according to Cynthia Ozick’s story, “Who Owns Anne Frank?” in The New Yorker: “A story may not be said to be a story if the end is missing. And because the end is missing, the story of Anne Frank in the fifty years since The Diary of a Young Girl was first published has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied… A deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth or anti-truth.”

After Otto Frank died in 1980, his substantial redactions – he removed about a quarter of the diary to avoid embarrassment to people still living and censor sensitive topics such as sexuality and German guilt – were restored for scholars in a “critical edition” in 1986. Eventually a “definitive edition” was published in 1995 with the goal of preserving the linear readability of the familiar 1950s version frequently assigned in schools while restoring the more important redactions. For a Broadway revival in 1997, Wendy Kesselman revised the earlier Goodrich and Hackett play to incorporate some of this newly released text, much of which was heavily publicized, and this is the version performed at the Arctic Playhouse. More significantly, Kesselman undid the most objectionable omissions in the earlier version of the play by which Hellman, in particular, wanted to universalize and thereby de-Judaize it: the Hebrew prayer and traditional Hebrew song “Maoz Tzur” when lighting Chanukah candles, and Margot’s Zionist plans. (Ironically, at least as performed by Arctic, the blessing omits the third verse of the blessing used only on the first night of the holiday, which is a Shehecheyanu, a thanksgiving prayer for making it to the holiday alive.)

It should be acknowledged that the play, while generally historically accurate, simplifies the story to compress and accentuate the isolation and claustrophobic conditions of those in hiding. Arctic Playhouse creatively uses their limited space to construct multi-level staging that resembles a studio loft, but the actual hiding place, although undeniably cramped, consumed three floors of a building. The play also directly asserts that the only outside visitors to the hiding place were Miep Gies and Mr Kraler (Anne’s pseudonym for Victor Kugler), but that’s wrong: Johannes Kleiman had managed Otto Franks’s business and continued to do so, and was imprisoned after the Nazi raid; Mrs. Kleiman was aware of the situation but was afraid to visit; Jan Gies, Miep’s husband, was active with the Dutch resistance and the black market, obtaining food and other essential supplies for those in hiding; Elisabeth (“Bep”) Voskuijl, Otto’s secretary, frequently visited the annex and, because of her young age, became as close as a sister to Margot and Anne; Johannes Hendrik Voskuijl, Bep’s father and Otto’s warehouse manager, constructed the elaborate concealments for the hiding place including its now-famous hinged bookcase.

Much of the irony of the play will escape an audience not especially well versed in the subject matter, and some explanatory context in the program would have been useful. For example, at several points in the play, Anne has visions of her friend Hanneli, unaware whether she is alive or dead; in real life, after Anne’s capture they met in the camp, Hanneli is one of the last persons known to have seen Anne alive and, as of this writing, Hanneli is still alive at age 90.

The Diary of Anne Frank, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett as revised by Wendy Kesselman, directed by Rachel Hanauer, at the Arctic Playhouse, 117 Washington St. West Warwick. Through Apr 20. About 2h15 including 20-minute intermission. Handicap accessible. Free on-street parking. Free cookies and popcorn. Tel: 401-573-3443 Web: thearcticplayhouse.com/shows/diary-of-anne-frank Facebook: facebook.com/events/556985584782488 Tickets: app.arts-people.com/index.php?show=96356

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