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Wednesday, April 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 47.0° F  Light Rain
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THEATER

The Diary of Anne Frank: The new breed
The Rep's production offers a fuller picture of the familiar heroine

This Anne is not a saint, but a real teen.
This Anne is not a saint, but a real teen.
Credit:Poornima Moorthy
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"How much could a 13-year-old have to say?" asks an exasperated Mr. Van Daan, one of eight people hiding in the famed Secret Annex during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Van Daan simply can't imagine what occupies the curious, hyper-literate Anne Frank, forever scribbling in her diary. Now, of course, the whole world knows the answer to that question - as well as the terrible end met by seven of the eight occupants of the Annex.

The importance of Anne Frank's story is without question - as is the compelling voice found in her words. From a theatrical standpoint, the more immediate concern is if a new production of The Diary of Anne Frank can make us see Anne with fresh eyes, and momentarily forget that we know the outcome of this story. On that level, Madison Repertory Theatre's production, directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, is a success that nearly devastates in its final moments.

The Diary of Anne Frank, like Art Spiegelman's Maus, is one of those works of art that help us understand the enormity of suffering by narrowing our view; we become emotionally involved with a small number of people whose everyday lives, in some ways, are not so different from our own.

In fact, in Wendy Kesselman's newly revised version of the play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, material that was absent from earlier editions of Anne's diary is brought to bear, giving us a fuller picture of a familiar figure. Anne is not just an abstract symbol of hope in the face of evil. She's a real teen who argues with her mother and begins to feel the stirrings of sexual curiosity.

While local eighth-grader Emma Geer is a winsome Anne, this is really an ensemble drama, and much hinges on the interaction between the Franks, the Van Daans and Mr. Dussel, a dentist in hiding with the two families. The tensions between them stood out to me more than they did in an earlier version of Diary I saw in Minneapolis. Amy J. Carle is particularly good in her understated portrayal of Anne's mother, Edith. Carle's acting is refreshingly organic, without a whiff of self-conscious theatricality.

As Otto Frank, Anne's father, James Ridge is most effective in the play's final scene. After some jarring lighting and sound effects that convey the fighting and the transport of Jews by train to the death camps, Ridge delivers a monologue that, in the hands of a lesser actor, might trivialize the situation. Thankfully, Ridge's performance has genuine emotional impact.

Diary did leave me with a few quibbles. Some cast members affect light German or Dutch accents while others do not, and the unevenness is distracting at times. The transition to intermission is awkwardly signaled, leaving some in the audience to wonder if it was indeed a break in the performance.

Those reservations aside, this new take on Anne Frank's story, coupled with a photo exhibit in the Playhouse lobby on loan from the Anne Frank Center in New York, makes Madison Rep's staging worthwhile both for adults who already know this classic (or think they do) and young people encountering it for the first time.

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