Same old story, but Anne Frank still relevant

Anne Frank: Actors Emma Geer and James Ridge portray Anne and Otto Frank in The Diary of Anne Frank."" The cast delivers a fresh, moving performance of the book we all read in high school.

The beginning of 2008 marks the 75th anniversary of the Nazis' rise to power in Germany, and 4,000 odd miles away it also marked the opening of the Madison Repertory Theatre's latest production The Diary of Anne Frank.""  


A recent article in the New York Times mentioned how the anniversary has given Germany another moment for somber reflection and highlights the relevance that still exists in the play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama more than 50 years ago. The issues the play addresses, such as Anti-Semitism, are still around, and the persecution of its characters mirrors the recent events in Kosovo and Sudan.  


For those who did not read ""Anne Frank"" during middle or high school, the entire play takes place in the attic of a warehouse in Holland where Anne's father, Otto Frank, was once a business partner. The Nazis have invaded Holland and begun to round up the city's Jewish population for deportation to various death camps.  


This is the impetus that makes two Jewish families - the Franks, Van Daans and, later, a Jewish dentist named Mr. Dussel - live together in a storage attic for a number of years, assisted by two of Mr. Frank's former business associates, Miep Gies (Carrie Coon, recently in Anna Christie) and Mr. Kraler (Jesse Michael Mothershed). 

Joe Varga, the scenic designer, did well by creating a multi-leveled space that comes off as oppressively cramped, while still allowing enough nooks and crannies for the characters to be alone and draw our attention. Since the families must hide above an operational factory, no one can make any noise or even go to the bathroom during the daytime hours.  


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The most inventive part of this production, directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, comes during the show's intermission. The lights go up, but the actors never leave the stage, break character or even acknowledge the intermission. They just go about their lives in the warehouse. It's in this moment, as we rise, stretch and in some cases go to the bathroom, that we become aware of the basic freedoms and liberties denied to the characters on stage. 


It is within this constant state of tension that the characters interact throughout the play, and there are some fine performances. Mrs. Van Daan - the flirtatious, shallow and brilliant cook - is played terrifically by Mary Ambrosavage, and James Ridge (last seen in Talley's Folly) performs well as Mr. Frank. Anne, the play's protagonist, is played with a near-perfect level of early teenage petulance by an actual 13-year-old, Emma Geer. The stand-out performance, however, is given by Jack Forbes Wilson, whose nuanced and charming portrayal of Dussel gets more out the character seemed possible. 


The problem with this production is not the acting - which easily rises above any of the previous performances of the play - nor its direction, which is competent and often insightful, but in the very play itself. Although the play is still relevant more than 50 years after its release, it is a relevance many have already explored in our middle and high school humanities classes.  


Earlier this season, when The Rep put on ""Death of a Salesman"" - a play of similar age and popularity in America's classrooms - there was a major difference. ""Death of Salesman"" is a classic that can become richer with every exposure. Sadly, if you have already read or seen ""The Diary of Anne Frank,"" you may just want to skip this production and look over your high school notes instead.  


""The Diary of Anne Frank"" will be showing at the Overture Center Friday starting at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m. and Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are still available starting at $16 at http://www.madisonrep.org.