Nearing its 50th anniversary, “The Diary of Anne Frank” remains a powerful and eloquent study of perseverance and courage in the face of insurmountable odds. Despite a few minor blemishes, this Paper Mill production of the crisply tailored adaptation by Wendy Kesselman retains the warmth and strength of the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning drama by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
The play eloquently dramatizes the harrowing events of a Dutch-Jewish family forced into hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam during WWII.
Kesselman’s rewrite took a critical hammering when the revival opened in 1997 on Broadway at the Music Box with Natalie Portman in the title role.
The performances here are for the most part functionally on the mark. As Anne Frank, Shana Dowdeswell brings the right balance of wistful adolescence, graced with the first flush of blushing maturity. Peter Kybart provides a well-grounded study of gentle patience and dignity. He’s the glue that binds the restless attic inhabitants.
The role of the droll dentist, Mr. Dussel, as played by Michael Rupert, is not quite as irritating as customarily drawn. Rupert adds a warming touch of whimsy to the character.
Best perfs come from Michael Stahl-David as the shy van Daan son, who courts Anne with awkward boyish charm, and Nancy Robinette as his overbearing mother. The latter has a scene near the play’s conclusion that does not appear in the original text. She promises her husband, who has stolen precious bits of bread in the night, that after the war she will cook “sauerbraten, red cabbage and potato pancakes” for him. David Wohl adds a fine account of desperation and shame as her spouse.
Dana Powers Acheson brings poise to Anne’s older sister, but Isabel Keating doesn’t quite define the earthy core of Mrs. Frank.
Director Carolyn Cantor has accented the unnerving tension and the simple joys of the huddled Frank family and their guests with distinction. A choice was made to avoid the use of accents, robbing the production of the lilting musicality of the European tongue, so beautifully expressed by Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber in the original production and subsequent film.
The finale lacks the tension and horror of the original staging. The stormtroopers simply come up the stairs quite suddenly and usher their captives out. Where were the gun butts pounding at the door, the tread of military boots, the fear and fury of their arrival?
Also missing is the opening scene in which Otto Frank, the only survivor, returns to the attic with loyal go-between Miep Gies to find Anne’s precious diary.
The set, designed by David Korins and lit with subtlety by Kevin Adams, manages to define the claustrophobic feeling of the cramped quarters on the vast Paper Mill stage.