You probably think you already know the story. I know that's what I thought, entering Seattle Children's Theatre to see The Diary of Anne Frank over the weekend.
Not only did I think I knew the story, I thought I knew the play inside and out. It was in our English curriculum in middle school. After we read it, we watched the movie. A few years later, in acting classes, our instructor had us use passages from the play to do scene work. Ten years later, in 2005, I visited Amsterdam and toured the annex where Anne Frank, her sister, her parents, another set of parents and their son, and a dentist, all lived, in hiding, from 1942 to 1944. I almost kept it together the whole time, but when I got to the last room and saw a board game hanging on the wall, I lost it.
The set at Seattle Children's Theatre is not the same layout as the actual annex (of course), but it's a fine approximation, and this production is worth seeing, because it's filled with phenomenal performances.
Especially phenomenal are the performances by Betsy Schwartz, as Edith Frank (Anne's mother), and Constance Macy, as Mrs. Van Daan. I realized, while watching these two women, that I had completely forgotten the complexity of what the adults in the annex went through.
I'd remembered Anne flirting with and kissing the Van Daan son, Peter (that family's real last name was Van Pels, but Anne changed their name to Van Daan in her diary). I'd remembered the spice cake and the cat.
But I'd forgotten all about Edith Frank admitting, at one point, horrified by what she is saying—the look on Schwartz's face as she was saying this haunted me after I left the theater—that she almost wished the Nazis would just take them already, because she couldn't take the anxiety of hiding anymore. The close quarters made her crazy, and interestingly so did Anne.
Somehow I had remembered Anne as a quiet girl writing endlessly in silence. Not true. As Miranda Antoinette Troutt's performance reminded me—and it's in the script, too—Anne was a lot. Her hyperactive curiosity, constant desire to talk, loud nightmares, and undimmed optimism annoyed the heck out of everyone else.
Constance Macy's portrayal of Mrs. Van Daan is also complex and startling. It's startling because she is constantly flirting with Otto Frank, Anne's dad (I'd forgotten those adulterous overtones) and complex because you see her negotiating the inner turmoil of having married a total loser, Mr. Van Daan (played by Rob Johansen). Mr. Van Daan's loserdom becomes all too apparent after he steals bread from the others in the middle of the night, and gets caught. Macy's way of navigating Mrs. Van Daan's contradictions, her facing of her own fate, is a thing to behold.
Of course, the bad fate of marrying the wrong man is nothing compared to the bad fates that await them all.
As for Edith Frank, she died at Auschwitz-Birkenau, three weeks before it was liberated. Peter Van Daan watched his father march into a gas chamber at Auschwitz, then was transferred to Mauthausen concentration camp, where he died, according to the play, three days before it was liberated.
It is unclear how Constance Macy's character, Mrs. Van Daan (real name Auguste Van Pels) died. According to one account, she died of typhus while being transferred by train to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. According to another account, she was actually thrown under the train and killed.
Otto Frank is the only person who was hiding in the annex who survived the Holocaust. His survival, and his discovery of the power of the writing in Anne's diary, is the reason that any of us know this story. He saw to it that the diary was published, and he appeared at the opening of the Anne Frank House (the preserved annex, open for tours, which is also a museum) in 1960. He died in 1980.
Even though the material is heavy, it's presented in a way to be accessible to families—after all, this is Seattle Children's Theatre, and the audience is full of kids. One way it's made accessible to families is through a talk-back with cast members after the show. (I didn't stick around for that, but I did hear, as I was leaving the theater, "My name is Ian and I played one of the Nazis.")
And, in fact, one of the moments of levity provided during the show was provided by the kids in the audience. The moment, late in act two, when Anne and Peter kiss is a poignant moment, especially for the adults in the room—the closest these two teenagers got to experiencing romantic love—but the kids reacted, hilariously, with repulsion. When Anne ran over to unexpectedly give Peter a kiss on the lips, the kids in the audience cried out, "No!" and "Ew!" and "Gross."
The Diary of Anne Frank plays at Seattle Children's Theatre through May 19.