I’m embarrassed to admit that I have never read or seen The Diary of Anne Frank. Oh, I knew the general outlines of the story, and even some of its most famous quotes (“I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”). But I wasn’t familiar with the particulars of the story. Which is maybe why watching the play now on at Olney Theater hit me like an emotional sledgehammer.
I brought my 10-year-old who hadn’t read it either and hasn’t even learned much about World War II yet – but we’d visited Amsterdam when she was nine so at least she had a sense of place. “Remember how narrow and tall the Amsterdam buildings are?” I asked her. “Well, this story takes place in a cramped space inside one of those skinny buildings.”
Driving to the theater, I gave her a ridiculously inadequate summary of the Holocaust to help set up the play we were about to see. But she surprised me later by drawing her own comparisons. “It’s like Voldemort took over,” she whispered to me during one particularly tense scene in the play.
As we found seats in the intimate Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney, the sound of rain and distant thunder filled the theater. The set design included vintage furniture, including an old stove and radio and lamps, immersing theatergoers even further in the time period.
It’s July 1942 in Amsterdam. Germany had invaded the Netherlands two years earlier. Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank and her family go into hiding after her older sister Margot receives a work camp summons. Their hiding place for what stretches into nearly two years is a secret annex to a warehouse where Mr. Frank had been a manager. The entrance to the annex is hidden behind a bookcase. They are joined by the van Daans, who have a 16-year-son named Peter, and later by a dentist, Mr. Dussel.
Despite all these strictures, and the constant terror of being discovered, life in the annex isn’t without joy. Anne is full of irrepressible exuberance and optimism. When they first move into the annex, she treats the experience as a new adventure. She is excited that Peter has a cat, that her father gives her a fountain pen with which to write in her new diary. For Hanukkah, she makes thoughtful presents for everyone.
As played by Carolyn Faye Kramer, Anne Frank definitely comes across as a teenage girl you might know (or be related to). She has issues with her mother – “I just don’t love her,” she writes in her diary. She writes excitedly about the changes taking place in her body: getting her period, growing breasts, yearning for Peter. She candidly admits when she was still in school she kissed a girl, and liked it. My daughter was fascinated by her.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending. Parents will probably know whether or not their child is ready to understand and absorb what happens when the people in the annex are betrayed and the Nazis round them up one night.
Anne’s story is essential – one that may be inscribed on dutiful “required reading” lists, but it feels far from dated. Today Anne could be a Syrian refugee or a Mexican migrant, as Olney’s artistic director writes in a program note.
This intense and moving stage production admonishes us not to forget but also inspires us to work against injustice and hate. Anne herself sounded a note of hope: “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
- The Diary of Anne Frank runs through October 23. General admission tickets are $60 adults, $50 children/seniors, $35 military. Pick up tickets at the box office at the main stage building but this production takes place in Olney’s smaller black-box theater, the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab.
- This production runs 2 hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
- There is ample onsite parking.
- Recommended for mature 10 year olds and up.
Photos by Stan Barouh.