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Theater Review: An Unforgettably Moving ‘Anne Frank’

anne smiles“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”

 – Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s words are undoubtedly powerful and inspiring. But beyond the millions who’ve read her diary since it was published in 1947 – and possibly for many of them – those words on a page are even more potent when dramatic presentation of two years hiding in the 75-square-meter Secret Annex makes those words flesh.

Anne’s father Otto Frank aided the development of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s play The Diary of Anne Frank, which opened on Broadway in 1955. That Tony-and-Pulitzer-Prize-winning show has been adapted onscreen more than once for film and TV, and a 1997 Broadway revival with revisions by Wendy Kesselman was also a success.

anne and peter 1It is that revision which Actors Bridge Ensemble and the Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance are now presenting in Belmont’s Black Box Theatre. I have seen several productions of the play – including an excellent 2010 rendering by Nashville Children’s Theatre – but I think the only time the memory of Anne Frank moved me more was in June 1982 as I stood at the bookshelf-covered entrance to the annex at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and cried.

Why? Perhaps it’s the intimacy of the playing space where the actors are at times just inches away from the audience. Perhaps it’s the adroit juxtaposition of audio and video elements that give us the horrific words and images wrought by the evil Adolf Hitler and followers perpetrated alongside the shining light of Anne’s unconquerable faith in basic human goodness. Perhaps it’s the exquisite performances given by a cast that clearly give themselves unflinchingly to this piece. Or most likely it’s all those things and more.

Hannukah intruderDirector Bill Feehely, set designer Nathan Alongi, light designer Richard K. Davis, sound designer Caroline Nott and costume designer Lauren Knoop – along with several others – have fashioned a multi-dimensional world filled from objects in Anne’s life on a white backdrop (a bicycle which offered the mobility no longer possible while she and seven others were hiding in the annex is particularly poignant) along with sights and sounds from that tumultuous time. Their framing evokes Nazi-occupied Holland, but also serves to remind us that human beings share many of the same hopes and fears no matter what the time, place or situation.

Madeline Marconi has the rhythms, energies and possibilities of Anne’s words in her leading performance. Kesselman’s additions include the newly-minted teenager’s thoughts on her emerging sexuality – part of a section of the diaries withheld by Otto Frank and brought to light after his death – and Marconi uses that and other aspects of the script to fashion a beautiful and realistic portrayal.

music boxNat McIntyre is equally impressive as her loving, gentle and thoughtful father. Playing Otto is challenging because he’s basically written as a saint, but McIntyre knows how to humanize him so we feel Otto is real with fears and flaws like anyone else.

Ross Bolen and Alice Raver provide much of play’s heartbreak as Mr. and Mrs. van Daan. Some reading this review may not have seen The Diary of Anne Frank so I won’t give all the details of a certain scene, but there’s a breakdown for Mrs. van Daan where Raver’s actions and Bolen’s reactions are searing reminders of the anguish victims of the Holocaust lived with every day in a multitude of ways.

the coat 2Also heartbreaking is the plight of Anne’s mother as played by Nettie Kraft: Anne basically detests her, and the sting of that rejection on top of the burdens she and the others share threatens to break her. Kraft leads us to the edge of that emotional cliff while still showing us Mrs. Frank’s inner strength; it’s a nimble balancing act that’s much harder to pull off than it looks.

There are fine efforts from the rest of the ensemble that includes Ævar Jónsson as Peter van Daan, Ara Vito as Margot Frank, Michael Joiner as Mr. Dussel, Grace Kelly Mason as Miep Gies and Kyle Odum as Mr. Kraler along with Shawn Hawkins and Sam Lowry. Actors Bridge and Belmont have been working together on theater projects for nearly a decade, and this unforgettably moving presentation of The Diary of Anne Frank is one of their finest collaborations.

diary 1The Diary of Anne Frank directed by Bill Feehely continues through Saturday (Nov. 23) at the Belmont Black Box Theatre (1575 Compton Ave.). Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays with additional shows at 8 p.m. today (Nov. 19) and 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Nov. 21). Tickets are $20 (discounted to $15 for Belmont faculty, staff and alumni with ID, senior citizens and non-Belmont students as well as $5 for Actors Equity Association members with ID). Belmont students get in free on convocation dates (Saturday and Sunday matinees and Tuesday and Thursday evenings). For more information call (615) 498-4077 or visit ActorsBridge.org.

*Photos by roboPIXX Photography courtesy Actors Bridge Ensemble and the Belmont University Department of Theatre and Dance.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).