Anne Frank: a far better telling of the story

Fighting Chance Productions. Anne Frank. Havana Theatre.

Playing Anne Frank, Morgan Hayley Smith is disarmingly present.

I thought I didn’t need to see another production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I was wrong. This production from Fighting Chance deepened and revitalized the story for me and introduced me to exciting new talent.

Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaption, which is being used here, is vastly superior to the original 1955 stage play. In an effort to be universal, the 1955 version, which was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, largely stripped Anne’s story of its Jewish specificity—which is amazing when you consider that it’s one of the iconic narratives of the Holocaust. “We’re not the only people that have had to suffer,” Anne says in Goodrich and Hackett’s telling. “There have always been people that have had to. . . Sometimes one race . . . sometimes another.” And, in making Anne a spotless martyr, the 1955 play flattens the historical figure.

Kesseleman restores all of that. True to history, Kesselman’s Anne identifies strongly as a Jew and the residents of the attic honour Jewish traditions. True to her diaries, Anne is a complicated figure who is devoted to her father Otto but declares that she doesn’t love her mother Edith: “I can imagine her dying,” she says, “whereas Papa’s death is unimaginable to me.” Kesselman also restores Anne’s full sexuality, including her declaration that that she finds female nudes “so exquisite I have to fight to hold back my tears.”

Based in matters of historical record, the outlines of the story stay the same. In 1942, thirteen-year-old Anne, her sister Margot, and their parents went into hiding in an annex above Otto’s former place of work in downtown Amsterdam. They were joined by Mr. and Mrs. Van Pels and their teenaged son Peter, who are called the Van Daan family in the stage adaptations, and by a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer (Mr. Dussel in the plays). Their only human links to the outside world were Miep Gies, who was Otto’s former secretary, and Victor Kugler (Mr. Kraler onstage).

The residents of the annex survived until 1944, when they were captured and transported to death camps. Anne died in February or March of 1945. Victory in Europe was declared on May 8.

The sickening thing about this production is how immediately relevant it feels. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think about the Latino families who are being hunted down and torn apart by immigration officials in the U.S and by the worldwide rise of Nazism and hatred towards refugees—including in Canada.

So this material is urgent once again and, with their amateur company, co-directors Allyson Fournier and Ryan Mooney do an excellent job of presenting it.

You’d be hard pressed to find a less affected, more engaging Anne than Morgan Hayley Smith offers in her first performance on a Vancouver stage. Smith never leans into sentimentality or posturing: her Anne is always actively processing information and speaking as honestly as she is allowed to. As Peter, Anne’s eventual love interest, Gabriele Metcalfe is just as thorough. As Peter negotiates his relationship with his bullying father and his fumbling romance with Anne, Metcalfe’s performance is seamlessly true.

I also particularly enjoyed Gina Leon’s work as Anne’s mom Edith. I watched her listening as the other characters spoke and her responses were so genuine that she broke my heart. There’s strong work, too, from Leanne Kuzminski (Mrs. Van Daan) and Diana Beairsto, who offers a winningly humble portrait of Margot.

Thomas King overdoes it as Mr. Dussel, the dentist. And some of the other cast members struggle a bit to get into the show’s hypernaturalistic groove, but the overall level of achievement is high.

Distinguished by various forms of claustrophobia, the physical production is also strong. I’m thinking of Mooney’s darkly dramatic lighting palette, the accurate period costumes (Fournier and Amara Anderson), and Fournier’s ominous and sometimes lyrical sound design.

The staging is strikingly simple: just eight black chairs used in inventive ways. In one of my favourite moments, the three children stand on chairs in the middle of the stage, giddily sharing strawberries and laughter. All around them, on the periphery of the playing area, the five adults sit in a kind of judgment and distance, discussing their children over a game of cards.

Excellent show. And the thrill of fresh talent.

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK Adapted by Wendy Kesselman from the original stage play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Co-directed by Allyson Fournier and Ryan Mooney. Presented by Fighting Chance Productions. At the Havana Theatre on Friday, June 8. Continues until June 23. 

Tickets.

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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