Next weekend, Center Stage Theatre will present the play “The Diary of Anne Frank,” written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. This will be in observance of the 75th year since the betrayal of Anne Frank and seven others in their hiding place in Amsterdam (the Annex). Last week’s column related a brief history of those in the Annex. This week we will discuss the play itself.
The play unfolds through flashback; Otto Frank returns to the Annex after the war. He is given Anne’s diary by Miep Gies, who had saved the diary from the Annex on the day the occupants were betrayed, hoping to return it unread to Anne. The play has a small cast of 10 people — the eight inhabitants of the Annex, and two outside helpers.
As is typical with a play or movie based on actual events, the play does not purport to be a documentary or re-enactment. The playwrights combine, distill and enhance the entries of the diary to paint a vivid picture of life in the Annex and to present key moments from two years in hiding. They also modify the personalities of the characters to create more dramatic tension in the play. To reduce the cast size, the playwrights fold the outside helpers from at least six people into only two.
One of the unusual aspects of this play is that the eight main characters stay on the stage for almost the entire play. Even when they are not central to a scene, the actors are reacting to the main dialogue or performing appropriate behavior in other sections of the Annex.
This is an aside about an event that brought home to me the power of live theater. Two weeks ago, a contingent of the Center Stage Theatre cast and crew went to New Bern to see the RiverTowne Players’ production of a slightly different version of the play. We were hoping to benefit from seeing someone else’s take on the play, both for the acting and for other production aspects such as the costumes and sets.
I had been immersing myself in the play for several weeks. In addition to reading the script, learning lines and starting rehearsals, I had read the diary and related books and materials, and watched the 1959 movie based on the play and the Oscar-winning documentary “Anne Frank Remembered.”
Therefore, I was surprised at my reaction when I saw the scene at the beginning of the play when Miep Gies presents the diary to Anne’s father, Otto, the only survivor from the Annex. I was emotionally overcome, even though I had read the scene and watched it rehearsed several times. Seeing the play also helped me realize how effective a live performance is to convey a greater sense of what living under these conditions was like.
When I was first planning this article, I considered several themes to look for in the play, and our trip to New Bern bore these out. One is the sense of “cabin fever,” which may seem a trivial term to describe the lives of eight people in such a desperate situation for over two years. Consider this not as the cabin fever of a rainy week at the beach cottage with several families, but stretched over two years, under constant threat and with monotonous food, conflicting personalities and limited resources for keeping occupied.
A surprising theme is a sense of normalcy, even when events relate to their confined condition. Despite their precarious situation, the inhabitants engaged in a great deal of everyday behavior that is related in the play. Anne is enchanted by the changes in her maturing body, she develops a relationship with Peter van Daan, the children study lessons, the children and adults engage in spats, and the families celebrate when they receive special food. To the extent that wartime rationing and black markets allowed, the families did receive luxury items such as books and Anne’s movie magazines, which their suppliers worked hard to provide them.
A third theme is the never-ending undercurrent of terror; their lives could be overturned by being discovered at any moment. Though the inhabitants would be very quiet during the workday, even avoiding using the toilet, they would move about more normally outside of working hours. The play dramatizes Anne’s nightmares, a thief who would likely have heard them moving about, and the dilemma of dealing with a worker who possibly knows the Annex is occupied and who may or may not be blackmailing the families for higher wages.
Anne had used pseudonyms in the diary for the people in the Annex. These were preserved in the first publication of the diary for those not in the Frank family, and further modified by the playwrights, possibly to be more “stage friendly.” One unfortunate pseudonym reflected Anne’s conflict with her roommate, dentist Fritz Pfeffer. She called him “Dussel,” German for “nitwit.” The portrayal of Dussel in the play and movie caused Pfeffer’s widow, Charlotta Kaletta, to break ties with Otto Frank and refuse interviews about her husband and the Franks.
Though the play is not meant to be literally historical, the 1955 version did tweak history in a few noteworthy ways. Unlike the play, Anne received her diary as a requested gift on her 13th birthday, almost two months before the family went into hiding. This meant Anne made entries about her life before the Annex, commenting on her friends and school life. Unlike the portrayal in the play, Anne made her last diary entry three days before they were arrested.
The end of the play indicates that a thief who broke into the workplace below the Annex was the one who betrayed the families. Currently, though there have been many theories, no consensus exists about the identity of the betrayer. Modern forensic investigations continue.
The play will be presented at the Paramount Theatre Feb. 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 10 at 3 p.m., featuring Jillian Malham in the role of Anne Frank. Tickets are available at the Paramount box office or online at bit.ly/cstnc19af.