An Optimistic Young Woman… and a Harsh Reality

That’s the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us too. I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

Youthful optimism. A belief that people are ultimately good and the world will be right. It is this outlook that can keep a family together in the face of the worst adversity; it is our children’s optimism that can keep an adult struggling through. We saw an example of this on stage last night in the superbly constructed presentation of The Diary of Anne Frank at Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall. Their mailers for this production indicate it was submitted for Ovation consideration, and it is truly worthy.

For those not familiar with the story (which is a true story): Otto Frank was a merchant who had moved from Germany to Amsterdam as Hitler rose to power. He brought with him his wife, Edith, and two daughter, Margot and Anne. When Margot received a call-up for a German labor camp, the family went into hiding in a secret annex of Otto’s former business location. Joining them were their friends, Hermann and Auguste Van Pels and their son Peter, and later a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer (those are their real names—the play changes their names to Van Daan and Dussel, respectively). Their only contact with the outside world are two former employee’s of Mr. Frank, Miep Gies and Viktor Kugler (name changed to Mr. Kraler). From 1942 to late 1944, the family hides in the secret annex until their discovery and arrest in August 1944. Only Otto Frank survives the holocaust, and goes on to publish his daughter’s diaries to share the story with the world. The secret annex is later preserved and turned into a museum

The play, which was written in the 1950s by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, and readapted in 1997 by Wendy Kesselman, follows the Frank family from the time of their entry into the Annex until their capture, with a short scene after Otto Frank returns to the annex after his liberation. The REP (or the revised script—it isn’t clear) made some adaptations in the opening, deleting the opening scene where the post-liberation Otto is in the Annex starting to read the diary, beginning instead with Anne’s voiceover of the diary). We see Anne enter as a bouncy, annoying adolescent, with a playful attitude and grating personality. As the play continues, we see how Anne matures and begins to calm down and become insightful.. and begins to experience romance. As originally written, the play was not without controversy, both for its accuracy to Anne’s own words and its portrayal of the Jewish experience. Supposedly Kesselman’s updates addressed that; however, I did notice that the play presented a picture of a very assimilated family, with only the occasional Jewish prayer and a single Chanukah observance. Whether that was an accurate reflection of their level of observance, or simply the playwrite’s adaption of the story to make it connect better with American audiences is unknown to me.

I do know that the story, as presented, hit home. I was particularly moved by one line in the first act, where Mr. Dussel relates what was happening outside: men would come home from work to find their families gone; children would come home from school to an empty house. For anyone that cares about someone else, that’s just a chilling image. As we have fewer and fewer survivors to tell their stories, plays such as this grow in importance as a witness to what happened. Once can only hope that years down the road this play is not viewed as fiction, and the Holocaust as a fictional story (as, alas, some world leaders seem to believe today). We must remember that horrors such as happened in Germany in the 1930s can occur anytime and anyplace we move from seeing people as fellow humans to seeing people simply as labels with either accept or hate. I have a fear the intense partisanship and hatred in the US today is moving us to that label-based view, given the vitriol I see in online comments. We must ever be aware, and plays like this (and thought provoking musicals such as Jason Robert Brown’s Parade) deserve to be seen and seen again.

If you can tell that I was moved by the REP’s presentation of the story, I was. This is due to a number of directoral and production decisions made by the first-time director,  Jarod Scott, in addition to the excellent acting of the cast. These decisions include casting age-appropriate actors as the Frank girls (the actress portraying Anne is a 14 year old 9th grader at Canyon HS; Margot is an 11th grader at Saugus HS), how he used the black-box space of the REP (which actually enhanced the tight-quarters of the annex), and how he kept the actors onstage during the intermission, playing their roles, going on with their lives in a space they could not escape. We have seen Jarod act before, but his directoral debut was impressive.

The acting was also top-notch from the typical REP mix of Equity professionals and local talent. All were excellent, and it is difficult to single anyone out… but I must. Brooke Moore as Anne brought a youthful enthusiasm and realism to the character—you could see her as the budding girl she was because Brooke is that age and knows from where Anne is coming. Especially in the first act, she also made Anne’s personality come through—and not in a saccharine sweet goody performance you might expect, but as a truly annoying “I must be the center of attention” young teenager that is the real thing many parents know. She realistically hated her mother (who didn’t understand her) but loved her father, and was impulsive and impetuous and didn’t always have her brain in gear. This from a young girl who has been acting since age 6; quite remarkable and quite good casting. Also impressive was Skip Pipo as Otto Frank, who provided that element of calm reason that I’m sure kept everyone in the Annex sane. I was unsure about  Barry Agin and Libby Westæ as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, but they shone in the second act in the scenes were Mrs. Van Daan’s fur coat had to be sold because the family was broke, and Mr. Van Daan broke down after stealing some bread. But it was just the little things that made this cast perfect, as could be seen during intermission: the playfullness between Anne and Christina Rideoutæ as her mother; the sisterly love between Anne and  Becky Allen as her sister Margot; the initial annoyance and later budding relationship between Anne and  Robert Altepeter at Peter Van Daan; and the annoyed tolerance between Paul Tigueæ as Mr. Dussel and Anne—all of these worked together to turn the performance from actors on the stage to people who were these characters, which was wonderful to see. Rounding out the cast were  Bridget Pugliese as Miep Gies (who was delightful to watch in her few scenes) and Robert Henryæ as Mr. Kraler.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

In terms of production quality, I’m always amazed at how an 81-seat theatre like the REP pulls off what they do. The resident set designer, Jeff Hyde, turned the REPs black box stage into a raised annex with four visibly separate rooms and an attic, with period worn beds and props. The costumes by Christopher Chase of Tribe Productions (who also served as Assistant Director) were appropriately period—I was particularly taken by their drabness, especially in contrast with the eye-popping red worn by Miep Gies who could actually go into the outside world. The sound design by resident sound designer  Steven “Nanook” Burkholder was excellent as always, although intially the Andrea Bocelli mood music seemed odd until one realized that people in that area listened to opera and classical. Of particular note was  Tim Christianson‘s lighting design: not only did it serve to highlight the rooms and the people, it emphasized the harshness and starkness of the life in the annex. It was particularly effective when it was the actor, as during the scene where the Franks and the other families are captured by the Nazi’s (which takes place in almost darkness), and the scene immediately thereafter, where you are just looking at the empty Annex, devoid of its people.  Johnny Schwinn was the resident stage manager. “The Diary of Anne Frank” was produced by Ovington Michael Owston and  Mikee Schwinn, co-artistic directors of REP East.

Uncredited, but certainly deserving of credit, is whomever decorated the REP lobby, which for this production was turned into a museum of the Holocaust, with information on the markings used by the Germans, maps, photographs, and other memorial displays. The REP lobby never gets the credit it should—this is a little theatre that takes the time to set the mood for their shows from the moment you walk into the door. It is this attention to detail that makes this place so special to us.

The Diary of Anne Frank” continues at REP East until April 16, and is well worth seeing. It is particularly thought provoking; I know it promped an extended discussion in our car on the way home. Tickets are available through the REP Online Box Office and are nominally $20 for adults, and $17 for students and seniors. You can often learn about discounts and “sold out”s by friending  REP East on Facebook. Discount tickets are available on both Goldstar Events and LA Stage Alliance.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend is a busy one, with two shows on Saturday: Branford Marsalis and Terence Blanchard at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica at 4pm, and Glory Days” at the Lillian Theatre at 8pm. April 9 will bring the Renaissance Faire. April 16 sees us out in Thousand Oaks revisiting “The Producers” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, with Lust N Rust: The Trailer Park Musical” at the Lyric Theatre on April 17. April 23rd, which is during Pesach, brings the last show of the current Colony season, “The All Night Strut” at the Colony Theatre. April 24 was to bring God of Carnage at the Ahmanson Theatre, but the Hottix sold out in ½ hour… so we may try to get rush tickets (for they are not selling rear balcony in advance). The last weekend of April brings another concert: (this is a concert heavy year, it seems): Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center. May starts with our penultimate Pasadena Playhouse production, “George Gershwin Alone“, on May 7. The weekend of May 12-14 will bring the “Collabor8 Dance Festival” at Van Nuys High School, which is always excellent. The third weekend in May is currently open, but I expect that to change. The last weekend of May brings Cabaret” at REP East on May 28 (note: “Dear World“, which was to have been at the Lyric Theatre, appears to have been cancelled). June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, with the rest of June being lost to Confirmation Services at Temple (now a maybe), and a college visit trip (but who knows — we might go see “Always Patsy Cline” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville). Lastly, July should hopefully start with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2 (pending hottix), and continue with Jerry Springer: The Opera (July 8, Chance Theatre, pending ticketing); “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed); “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed); Dolly Parton (July 22 or 23, Hollywood Bowl, pending ticketing); “Shrek” (July 23 or 24, Pantages Theatre, pending ticketing); and “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed).