By Wendy Carson
This past Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to attend one of the special student showings of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” at the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre. It was eye-opening for all, to say the least. Overhearing their comments both during and after the show helped drive home how important theatrical productions of Holocaust stories are in our world.
With most of the audience being of roughly the same age as Anne, the tragedy of her life and situation really resonated with the students. While they were aware of World War II as history, seeing the images in context really drove these horrors home. After the performance, most were busy wiping tears from their eyes, even those who had read Anne’s “Diary of a Young Girl” prior to attendance.
The power of the show begins with the spectacular set design of Ryan Koharchik. The multi-level set reflects the spaces these souls were forced to inhabit during their two years in hiding but the grim truth of the situation comes from the high, chain-link fence topped with razor wire that serves at the back wall to the show. This also allows for Michael J. Lasley to project timely background photos to further the message beginning with the initial one of Anne’s photograph and actual pages of writing from her diary. Lasley also has a short moment on stage near the end of the show.
While Wendy Kesselman’s new adaption of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett is stirring, nothing would ring true without the amazing skills of the actors here, under the direction of versatile theatre artist Claire Wilcher. Especially since many regular theater goers will know several of them for their numerous comedic roles and will be delighted to see their incredible range highlighted here.
Rebecca Piñero brings the shy stoicism of Anne’s older sister Edith to light, keeping her character from being overlooked and fading into the background.
Kevin Caraher as Mr. Kraler, who keeps the doors to the Franks’ business open and running while ensuring no one else is aware of the eight souls above, shows both the hopefulness and fear of his role.
Mookie Harris as the dentist Mr. Dussel keeps his character cold and very removed from the others he is with, but also hints that this is the character’s way of shielding himself from the devastation of losing more people he cares about.
Jay Hemphill and Carrie Reiberg as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan bring the elitist pomposity out in their characters, yet still show us the struggles of a couple terrified of the situation they have been put into.
Garrett Rowe, as Peter Van Daan, brings his character’s growth from fear at being thrown into a new situation with unbearable co-inhabitants, delicately budding into happiness and growing romance throughout their time together.
David Wood as Otto Frank keeps the optimistic outlook as the leader of this group of survivors. Brittany Magee’s maternal turn as Edith Frank is perfection indeed. She enacts the struggles and sorrows of a mother fighting to keep control of her family and situation so well you might think she has raised a slew of teenagers herself.
Anyone who has ever witnessed her on stage before obviously knows the spectacular comic whirlwind that is Kelsey VanVoorst. Now we are a party to the depth of her pathos as she portrays Miep Gies, the character most at risk of tragedy for her part in this endeavor. VenVoorst keeps Miep as upbeat as possible as she bravely smuggles in the supplies to keep the group alive during their time in hiding. The strength and resolve that keeps her going are evident as she forces herself to find the happiest news she can find to share with the families.
Finally, we arrive at the cornerstone role of the play, Gemma Rollison as Anne Frank (alternately played by Sydney Pinchouck on Feb. 28 and 24). Known as a brave girl who fought through so much to keep herself optimistic through her lifetime, this side of Anne is presented perfectly, yet Rollinson also brings the girl’s precocious and obnoxious spirit also noted in her writing and memories of her surviving father. Beginning as an oblivious 13-year-old who thinks teasing her companions is the height of joy, Rollinson exquisitely brings out Anne’s changes into a budding young woman by the show’s end.
As this country has recently experienced fear and confinement from a life-threatening disease, it feels like we can identify somewhat with the desperation and anxiety faced here. However, the fatalities of the Coronavirus are nothing in comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust. This grave, terrible reality is precisely why these stories must be told and retold. As the years pass and memories begin to fade, we must ensure that this dark chapter of the past is never forgotten or allowed to recur. The Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council is on hand in the lobby to provide information of how to participate in continuing this vital effort.
After seeing the reactions of the young people in the audience, I urge you to get as many of them to this show as you can (as well as yourselves). While the subject matter is rather intense and is probably not suitable for all ages, anyone 13 and up really needs to see what life could have been like for themselves if they had been born during this time. Performances run through Feb. 25 (public showtimes at 7 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays) at the Tarkington theatre in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel. Get info and tickets at civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.