Theater: Human courage

Ross Valley Players present compelling ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’

By Charles Brousse

The Ross Valley Players have just received what I imagine is a very welcome New Year’s gift. After the company’s first two productions of the 2015-2016 Season—Glorious! and The Ladies of the Camellias were—with respect, let’s say “not overwhelmingly successful”—the enthusiasm that greeted last week’s opening of The Diary of Anne Frank brought smiles all around as producers, staff and cast anticipate a run that ought to help dissipate any leftover gloom.

Of course, whether the rosy expectation translates into box office activity remains to be seen. Viewed from this corner, RVP’s Diary is a compelling presentation of a heart-tugging theatrical classic. If that description doesn’t draw people in, it probably reflects more on the benumbed state of a public that is currently overwhelmed by media-reported horrors than on any lack of merit.

From veteran director James Dunn’s adroit staging to Ron Krempetz’ austere set, Michael Berg’s 40s-style costumes, Frank Sarubbi’s lighting and Stephen Dietz’ sound, the production side is solid throughout. As always, however, well-cast actors and a quality script are what make or break any show, and here the news is especially good.

Brigid O’Brien, who was last seen at RVP as “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird and is making quite a name for herself locally through appearances at A.C.T. and the Mountain Play, brings enormous energy and presence as Anne Frank, the Jewish girl whose diary eloquently details the rigors of two-plus years spent hiding from the Nazis with family members and friends in an Amsterdam attic. It’s not an easy role. During those two years Anne evolves from parent-dominated girlhood to an increasingly independent, sexually aware adolescent driven by hormone-linked personality changes. O’Brien navigates this turbulent sea with admirable ease, my only reservation being that she is sometimes overly brash—a contemporary American teenager (which she really is), rather than a more disciplined Central European girl of the 1940s.

Avi Jacobson is Otto Frank, Anne’s genial businessman father, the only attic inhabitant who survived the Holocaust. His flashback memories bookend the drama during a post-war visit with Miep Gies (the appealing Dana Cherry) and he is a calming presence throughout. The latter is important because his wife, Edith (Pamela Ciochetti) is anything but calm. Her scene in which she demands the ouster of their fellow fugitives, the Van Daan family, after Hans (Steve Price), its patriarch, is caught stealing scarce bread, is among the production’s highlights. Mrs. Van Daan (Kristine Ann Lowry) has some lovely moments of her own, and Jim Fye is entirely credible as Mr. Dussel, an unmarried dentist who is the awkward outsider in this two-family enclave. Hannah Leonard (Margot Frank), Jeremy Ivory-Chambers (Peter Van Daan) and Dan Bort (Mr. Kraler) complete a remarkable ensemble.

While Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s script, slightly updated in the 1990s by Wendy Kesselman, is widely admired (the first English version received the 1955 Pulitzer, and the play is required reading in many schools worldwide), there have been some dissenting voices. Holocaust deniers claim, with no evidence whatsoever, that it is a Zionist propaganda tool. More serious is the suggestion that the diary is essentially fiction—the product of many editings, adaptations and translations that have transformed it from Anne’s crude jottings on school book paper into a powerful literary and theatrical document.

In fact, there may be some truth to this—and more versions may yet appear now that the original Dutch copyright expired on January 1 of this year. To me, the attribution issue is irrelevant. Any work of art is collaborative in the sense that it stands on the shoulders of those who went before. Although The Diary of Anne Frank may be the work of many hands, this story of human courage in the face of human cruelty will doubtless stir the emotions for generations to come.

NOW PLAYING: The Diary of Anne Frank runs through Sunday, February 7 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theater, Marin Art & Garden Center, Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.

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