Playwright: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, adapted by Wendy Kesselman
At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Runs through: June 10
Phone: 312-335-1650; $20-$65
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
'In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.'
This statement from The Diary of Anne Frank gets repeated so often that it's dangerously cliché. Its Pollyanna-ish sound can also minimize the horror and fear faced by her Jewish family and others who lived in hiding during much of World War II in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
Well, change any condescending attitudes you might have about the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play adapted from Frank's wartime diary. In Wendy Kesselman's 1997 Broadway adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's original, lingering perceptions of sugar-coating from this reliable dramatic chestnut are rightfully scraped away.
Kesselman reshapes The Diary of Anne Frank to make its ending more terrifying and tragic, while adding more 'mature' bits that had been previously edited out from early editions of Frank's diary.
Traditionalists might not be happy, but Steppenwolf Theatre and director Tina Landau were right to choose Kesselman's adaptation for its solid and dramatically heart-wrenching production of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Landau and set designer Richard Hoover do away with a traditional walled set. Instead, rooms are largely delineated by tape markings on the floor and furniture pushed around from a clump at the top of the show.
If you want to read into the concept, the lack of walls shows how little privacy the inhabitants had in the warehouse's hidden rooms ( Landau even goes to far as to keep her cast on stage and on view fully through intermission ) . The transparency might also emphasize just how exposed the hiding Frank and Van Daan families felt mentally with their nerves frequently on end from being discovered at any moment.
Landau also allows each of the major cast members to reveal rich characterizations that are filled with nuance, whether chafing at their cramped conditions or briefly finding joy from a small pleasure like a spice cake.
As Anne, Claire Elizabeth Saxe brightens up the whole theater as a young girl bursting with creative energy and enthusiasm without being cloying. In fact, each of the young children shine from Mark Buenning's shy Peter to Carolyn Fay Kramer's understated 'good girl' Margot.
Kathy Scambiatterra has fun as the frequently vain Mrs. Van Daan, while Francis Guinan add a nice touch of desperation to Mr. Van Daan. Alan Wilder also helps with a few laughs as the dentist Mr. Dussel who later joins everyone in hiding.
As the Frank parents, Otto and Edith, Yasen Peyankov and Gail Shapiro give great performances, especially with Shapiro showing Edith's pent-up anger and resentment at Anne's favoritism toward her father. Peyankov is particularly moving during Otto's final monologue. Don't be surprised if you get pushed to tears.