Unquestionably affecting but also old-fashioned, the 1955 dramatic adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” modified by Wendy Kesselman a decade ago for a Broadway revival, isn’t the kind of work that calls for bold direction. While it’s been accused of being a watered down, sentimentalized version of the diaries, it has a straightforward simplicity that overly conceptual tinkering could potentially destroy. That makes helmer Tina Landau’s respectful but stylish Steppenwolf production a particularly admirable achievement.
Landau brings a contemporary spare elegance to the work, finding subtle and affecting ways to air out much of the dramaturgical mustiness with just a few theatrical flourishes. The production delivers a faithful version of the play, but Landau and her solid cast gently mute the play’s tendency toward caricature and moments of melodrama.
It’s a touch cool, and set designer Richard Hoover’s use of bare, open space sacrifices the sense of claustrophobia that’s more commonly emphasized. But the production remains a moving work that pays fine tribute to the spirited, burgeoning teenage artist who has come to represent all those lost in the Holocaust.
The show’s most potent imagery comes right at the top, as the Frank family’s entrance from below creates a deeply resonant silhouette against the back wall. Quickly, the performers start peeling tape to mark out the rooms of their confined living space, and then move all the furniture that’s been stuffed toward the rear of the stage into its proper placement. There are no walls here, nor even levels. Landau chooses to emphasize the work’s simplicity rather than decorate it.
The director limits additional embellishments to a few lighting effects from designer Scott Zielinski, including a spotlight for some of Anne’s monologues, and an occasional flash of light at moments when everything changes. The period-perfect costumes — which the actors, who never leave the stage, take on and off throughout — and the exceptional sound design keep the play firmly grounded in a necessary realism.
As ensemble playing remains Steppenwolf’s specialty, it’s no surprise that the performers seem to settle as firmly into the characters as the characters settle into their lives in hiding.
High-schooler Claire Elizabeth Saxe proves a properly infectious Anne, an exuberant, rebellious kid who could easily annoy those that prefer tranquility to teenage drama. Sure, there are more layers to this extraordinary character for Saxe to uncover, but she instantly possesses the most essential ones. Saxe’s smile — and her Anne smiles a lot — seems fundamentally authentic.
The broadness of the play’s supporting characters gets smartly toned down, making them seem much more like nuanced Chekhovian figures than they have in prior productions. The dentist Mr. Dussel (Alan Wilder) is perpetually perturbed but not overly fussy; Francis Guinan makes Mr. Van Daan’s descent from pomposity to thievery believable; and, as Mrs. Van Daan, Kathy Scambiaterra feels fully complex even in her attachment to her fur coat.
Best of all is Yasen Peyankov, who as Otto Frank makes the most idealized person in the play just a tiny bit insecure, roughing the edges of the character’s perfection without piercing it.
The end belongs to Mr. Peyankov, who steps forward to narrate the events that transpired after the Franks’ capture. Holding back tears to deliver the facts, the actor finds both power and beauty in graceful restraint, as does this production overall.