We often say of someone else’s pain and suffering that it is unimaginable; indeed, lately I frequently catch myself trying, and failing (or perhaps refusing) to imagine what (to take just two examples from many) it would be like to be a refugee from Syria crossing the Mediterrannean with my young children, or to be hiding from gang violence in Colombia. Such experiences are hard to imagine not just because they fall far outside my experience; they are hard for me to force myself to really imagine. I don’t want to go there, and, left to my own devices, I will usually stop short of really putting myself in the sufferer’s shoes.
But as unimaginable as such suffering may seem, I – and I don’t think I’m alone here, but I’ll play it safe and avoid using the inclusive “we” for now – dishonor the victims by refusing, or failing, to imagine what they’ve endured. So it’s important, and timely, that a play like The Diary of Anne Frank asks its audience to attend to the hellishly challenging day-to-day circumstances the Frank family and their four cohabitants had to endure for two excruciatingly long years as they hid from the Nazis in a cramped Amsterdam attic.
I suspect, dear reader, you know the story of Anne Frank; even if you have never read her diary (or, like me, read it so long ago that you’ve forgotten most of the details) you have a rough idea of the ordeal she recorded there. The play, adapted from the diary in 1955 by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, tells the story from the point of view of her father, Otto Frank (Randy Kovitz), the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust. At the beginning of the play he has returned to the attic with Miep (Kelsey Carthew), the family friend who helped them while in hiding. She restores Anne’s diary to him, and the action rewinds to the first day the Frank family – Otto, Mrs. Frank (Christine Laitta), Anne (Remy Zaken) and her older sister Margot (Erika Cuenca) – moved into the attic space above Otto’s former place of employment, aided by Miep and Mr. Kraler (Ken Bolden), the businessman who occupies the building’s lower floors. Moving in with them are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (David Wohl and Helena Ruoti) and their teenaged son Peter (David Edward Jackson). Suitably, the seven actors are practically tripping over each other on Michael Schweikhardt’s cramped (and seemingly authentic) set, and things only get worse when they are joined a short time later by Mr. Dussel (Daniel Krell), another Jew in need of refuge. The play bounces forward in time, showing key events and conflicts over the two years of their self-imprisonment and tracing Anne’s maturation from child to teen. The characters bicker over privacy; they celebrate holidays; Mr. Van Daan steals food; Anne begins to fall in love with Peter. In its unassuming and dignified way the play presents us with a group of ordinary people coping, best as they can, with circumstances that most of us cannot even begin to fully conjure to mind.
In truth, for me, at least, the power of the play derives as much from what it doesn’t show as from what it does. We see the characters burst into action at the end of the workday, finally able to converse and move about and use the toilet after eight hours of imposed silence. What we’re left to imagine are the long, torturous times in between. We’re left to imagine the constant daily fear of making noise, the potential horror of an ill-timed sneeze or cough. We’re left to imagine what it would be like to be a healthy, vibrant, curious thirteen-year-old forced to remain inside, still, and absolutely quiet all day long, every day, with no end in sight. And imagining these things might take you, as it took me, one step closer to imagining all of those other unimaginable situations people around the world find themselves in right now. That’s not to say the play doesn’t have its moments of lightness; it takes from the diary the optimism and hope that have endeared Anne Frank to generations of readers. But it does make The Diary of Anne Frank far timelier and more relevant than the content of its story might initially suggest.
Pam Berlin has directed a quietly moving production. Zaken is chipper as Anne, although oddly somewhat less convincing as a teen than as a prepubescent girl. Ruoti and Wohl are particularly fine as the quarrelsome Van Daan couple, and Krell is well cast as the fussy uptight bachelor Dussel. As Otto Frank, Randy Kovitz occupies the play’s emotional center with deep integrity – as the younger Otto, he is practical, decorous, and efficient, a peace broker and leader to the sometimes fractious group; as the Holocaust survivor, he is an utterly broken man, loss burdening his every gesture. He’s experienced the unimaginable, and he demands we bear witness.