Monday, November 7, 2016

Palo Alto Players: The Diary of Anne Frank

Left to right: Vic Prosak and Roneet Aliza Rahamim. Photo courtesy Joyce Goldschmid and Palo Alto Players.

When the world of the Allies reeled from the discovery of the horrors committed by the Nazis, it was difficult for many people, especially those without personal connections, to process the meaning of what occurred during the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s diary, discovered after the war, allowed insight into the lives of the millions of victims of Hitler’s atrocities and remains a classic of historical literature to this day, with several stage and film adaptations. Palo Alto Players’ version, based on the 1997 script by Wendy Kesselman, brings to life the personalities and trials of the people in hiding in a small annex in Amsterdam.

Through her diary, Anne Frank put a face on the victims of the Holocaust as an ordinary girl surviving under extraordinary circumstances. In a theatrical adaptation, the actress portraying her must balance the innocence of a middle school girl with the desperation of someone forced into hiding. Roneet Aliza Rahamim’s rendition achieves this balance: She begins the play excited and adventurous, and although she becomes more distraught as her circumstances turn grim, she never loses the positivity and hope that lie at the core of her character.

Another standout performance in the play is Vic Prosak as Anne’s father, Otto. Prosak has a deep, powerful voice, which lends authority to his attempts to maintain peace among the members of the annex. Otto feels a profound sadness about the group’s situation as he watches his children grow up under Nazi persecution; he expresses his protectiveness through unfailing diplomacy yet rigorous adherence to the stringent rules dictated by extreme circumstances. It is Otto who gives the final monologue detailing the horrific fates of the rest of the annex group, and the sorrow and rage in his telling is palpable.

As their living situation becomes more desperate over the course of the play, the group wears down, each member reacting to the deteriorating situation according to their own idiosyncrasies. Most obvious is the dentist Mr. Dussel (Tom Bleecker), whose irritable personality is a source of humor in the play’s lighter moments, but, over time, becomes genuinely angry. The Van Daans (Shawn Bender and Rachel Michelberg) show perhaps the most dramatic transformation, as their refinement crumbles under the face of a dwindling supply of money. However, despite the increasing deprivation and tension, human decency and empathy survive, even during the terrifying moments when the Nazis arrive.

Kuo-Hao Lo’s set captures the confined space of the annex while providing a reasonable amount of room for the drama to unfold. Skylights at the top of the stage let in a sliver of cool light, hinting at the outbreak of the war in Nazi-occupied Holland, but not giving the audience – or the members of the annex – quite enough information. Rooms are set up so beds don’t occupy too much of the audience’s visual space; this gives the actors room to perform, while still conveying a cramped living area too small for its occupants.

Many people have read The Diary of Anne Frank at some point in their lives, but Palo Alto Players’ stage adaptation further captures the point of reading the book – understanding the story of those who lost their lives during the Holocaust. More than simply a documentary about genocide, the play allows us to sympathize directly with a handful of people whose lives were destroyed. For those who want to further know the life of people hiding desperately from a government intent on exterminating them, Anne Frank provides profound insight.

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