by Matthew Falduto
Photos by Emily McKnight
Iowa City – Before you even enter the theatre, you get the feeling that this show is going to be something special. Throughout the lobby is an amazing display centered around the subject at hand – the Holocaust in general and Anne Frank in specific. Taped off on the floor of the lobby is the size of the secret annex where the Frank family lived for two years in hiding. You stand within the tape marks and begin to realize how difficult it must have been. An incredibly detailed timeline adorns the walls as you walk down a corridor toward the playing area. Before you’re allowed in, two actors encourage you to be as quiet as possible, emphasizing another challenge Anne and the others had to face. A bookcase swings open and you are taken down a hall, up a couple of stairs and then you are in the theatre. As you take your seats, you realize you are incredibly close to the action. Those of us in the front row are inches from the actors. All of this adds up to an immersive theatre experience the like of which I have never experienced at the Iowa City Community Theatre before. The Diary of Anne Frank, directed by Rachel Korach Howell, is an perfectly created theatrical experience, emotionally raw and funny and heartbreaking. It’s what theatre should be, every single time.
We all know the story – Anne, her family, the Van Daan family, and Mr. Dussel the dentist, hide in a secret annex for two years in an attempt to escape the Nazi death camps. Anne writes a diary during this time, which is the basis for the play, and becomes one of the most important historical documents of the Holocaust. Because the story of Anne Frank is so well known, there’s an undercurrent of pain even in the most innocuous of moments. This is never overplayed, but instead each actor stays within the truth of the moment, allowing the history to layer itself on top for added impact.
The set is expertly created with multiple levels, strongly emphasizing the cramped existence they endured. A scrim across the back of the set is lit with different colors at different points. Sometimes we see outlines of actors reminding us of the malevolent presence of the Nazis; other times there are radio announcements telling us about the war. Michael Blake’s design is impressive and well utilized throughout the show. Having the actors enter and exit the annex through the audience brings us into the play in a powerful way.
This is a powerhouse cast. Chuck Dufano turns in a thoroughly engrossing performance as Otto Frank, Anne’s father. He is nurturing when needed and takes control when necessary. You get the sense that Otto kept them all together for those two awful years, and the calm that Dufano radiates in the role really brings that home. Kathy Maxey’s performance as Edith Frank, Otto’s wife, is equally fascinating to watch. Maxey uses her expressive eyes and halting movements to show how lost and afraid Edith is. Before passing away of starvation, we know Edith suffered a breakdown when she was separated from her daughters in the death camps. Maxey’s performance makes that an entirely believable fate.
Also in the annex are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, played by Rip Russell and Kristin Schneider. They are both excellent in the roles, particularly when interacting with each other. There are lots of little moments that you might consciously miss, like when Russell pats his son on the arm, or the Van Daans share a look, but subconsciously we take in these moments and they add a layer of reality to the drama. Russell and Schneider have a wonderful moment together late in the play after Mr. Van Daan is caught stealing food. Mrs. Van Daan reminisces about their past together, and Schneider wisely keeps it light until the very end when she powerfully offers her strength to her husband. In those brief moments, we see their entire love story play out, and Russell’s guttural, painfully moving response is as powerful a moment as I’ve seen on stage.
Peter Van Daan, the teenage boy who falls for Anne, is played by Grant Blades. He does a wonderful job of saying so much with so few words. A shy look here or an angst filled flop onto his tiny bed tell us so much about the sweet, introspective boy who is stuck in this nightmare. He comes alive whenever has to interact with Anne, which is certainly what one would expect. It’s a really smart performance by the young actor.
The supporting actors, Erin Mills as Miep and Brad Quinn as Mr. Kraler, also do an excellent job connecting with the other actors. Each has a moment or two to shine and take full advantage of those opportunities to show their talents.
Melissa Kaska portrays Margot Frank, Anne’s older sister. She enters the annex in a daze as though she cannot believe this is happening. It’s a wonderful contrast to Anne, who is a whirlwind of energy. Throughout the show, Kaska creates a completely relatable character, shy and unassuming, but with dreams and desires like any other teenage girl. She’s a fascinating counterpoint to Anne, and the quiet way in which she shows her love for Anne allows the audience to love Anne all that much more.
Serena Collins, who has quite a theatre resume for someone so young, portrays Anne Frank with real emotional honesty. Anne has become a sort of hero over the years – the amazing girl whose diary was full of insightful thoughts and a depth of knowledge far beyond her years. What’s wonderful about Collins’ performance is that it is grounded in the fact that Anne was a regular teenage girl. I imagine some credit for this decision belongs to director Rachel Korach Howell as I’m sure she guided her young actress through the character’s journey.
Collins has an exuberance as Anne that is intoxicating – you understand immediately why her family loves her, particularly her father and her sister. You also understand why she is infuriating at times. Her scenes with her mother are particularly heartbreaking. As any mother of a teenage girl knows, rejection of one’s mother is often a part of growing up. Maxey is perfect in these moments, pained but understanding, yet still afraid, knowing that if the worst happens, this is how her relationship with her daughter will end. Collins portrays these classic teenager moments with a matter of factness that is wonderfully obtuse. These are the moments when you realize just how normal Anne is. And then it hits you – there were millions of Anne Franks killed by the Nazis. It wasn’t that Anne was so unique – it was that there were millions of special girls who were murdered.
While Collins is great in the narrative moments when she is speaking the words of Anne’s diary, she is even better when interacting with her fellow actors. The relationship between Anne and Peter is a perfect example of young love. Both Collins and Blades commit to the awkwardness and the excitement of the moments, and their relationship is one of the most touching of the show. Collins is also great when interacting with Dufano – their father-daughter relationship is lovely to behold. This is complete performance from beginning to end.
You really do not want to miss this show. Even if you’ve seen it before, check out ICCT’s immersive experience, for this is such an important play, particularly now. Our current president became president through attacking people based on their race and their religion. He suggested an American judge of Mexican descent couldn’t be fair because of his race. He referred to Mexicans who come to the US as rapists. He called for a ban on Muslims before walking it back and attempting to hide his true intentions. This is the world we’re living in. ‘Never forget’ is the rallying cry of the survivors of the Holocaust. We must take those words to heart lest we discover the tragedies of the past have become the tragedies of the present. So see The Diary of Anne Frank at ICCT, experience some carefully and expertly created theatre, and help us all never forget. Tickets are available here. Rumor has it they are adding a Saturday matinee performance too so stay tuned for that announcement.