Steppenwolf’s Anne Frank

From May ’08 Spotlight: Coincidentally, the Holocaust’s best-known victim is telling her story to a new generation in the Steppenwolf’s current revival of The Diary of Anne Frank. “In the Q&A after the performance, Artistic Director Martha Lavey told us that she had originally intended the production for the student series (“Steppenwolf for Young Adults”), but the more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that the play needed to be seen (“perhaps again”) by general audiences.

Steppenwolf’s production uses text prepared by Wendy Kesselman for the 1997 Broadway version, and it’s much darker than the original adaptation of Anne’s diary by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. For those of us familiar with George Stevens’ Academy Award-winning film from 1959, Steppenwolf’s new production is visually disconcerting. Steven’s Diary received an Oscar for Art Direction/Set Design for its multi-level recreation of the “Secret Annex,” but Steppenwolf’s stark staging is eerily less colorful than the film (which was made in black and white). The intention, Lavey told us, was to place cast members “in an existential void.”

While I‘m well-aware of the motivations behind Kesselman’s version (which made its Broadway debut a few weeks after Cynthia Ozick’s famous New Yorker magazine diatribe “Who Owns Anne Frank?”), I still prefer Stevens’ approach. I can’t quite believe that Anne herself experienced “an existential void,” whereas claustrophobia is apparent on almost every page she wrote.

Why have Otto Frank do an epilogue in which he tells us tragic details that Anne, the writer, never had the chance to describe in her own words? And worse, after recounting Edith’s death in Auschwitz and Margot’s death in Bergen-Belsen, he tells us things Anne never knew anything about (concerning Mr. Dussel and the Van Daan family). I far prefer Stevens’ decision to open his film with Miep Gies handing Anne’s diary to Otto upon his lonely return. It was Miep, after all, who both found Anne’s diary and had sufficient faith left to save it. Had she not done so, none of us would be able to read Anne’s words today.

All that said, young Claire Elizabeth Saxe gives a remarkable performance as Anne. She’s annoying yet endearing, sweet-faced without being inappropriately pretty like her Broadway predecessors Susan Strasberg and Natalie Portman. We know Anne’s face too well; we know her true beauty came from the glow of radiant intelligence burnished by a father’s beneficent love.

The Diary of Anne Frank runs through June 10. To purchase tickets, call (312) 335-1650 or visit: http://www.steppenwolf.org.

For more on Ozick’s article, visit http://www.films42.com/columns/anne_frank.asp

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