Tales of the Dispossessed
The rainy season is back, the snowbirds have gone, but the theater season roars on. A number of plays currently on the boards are stories of dispossessed communities struggling to maintain their traditional identities and find new ones.
One such is GableStage's production of The Diary of Anne Frank, the classic Holocaust story in a recent (1997) adaptation by Wendy Kesselman of the original 1950s stage version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. In this true story, Otto Frank, a prosperous German-Jewish businessman, has fled the Nazi regime to live in Amsterdam. But when the Nazis invade Holland, the family decides this time to hide, taking refuge in the attic of Otto's office building annex. They are joined by Otto's business associate and his family. To avoid detection, all must keep absolutely quiet during the office working hours -- no shoes, no noise, no running water. After six they can relax but none may leave the attic or even peek out a window lest the Gestapo finds out.
Otto's younger daughter, Anne, all of thirteen, decides to write a diary of her experience, which becomes both the focus of her life of attic confinement and the basis for the production itself. Many people are familiar with the "original" diary, which was made public in the 1950s, but this was a sanitized version that censored Anne's entries about sexual feelings, her conflicts with her mother, and other less-than-saintly aspects. These extirpated passages have been restored by Kesselman, resulting in a far more vivid and lifelike portrait of Anne and her family.
The production features a solidly professional cast, though there's a wide range of acting styles in evidence. Jennifer Lehr is thoroughly convincing as the free-spirited, adolescent Anne. Peter Haig and Sally Levin are also on the mark as her parents, the quietly heroic Otto and his pessimistic, anguished wife Edith. Kevin Reilly injects palpable fear in his brief appearances as the office manager who must keep the Franks' secret from the rest of the staff.
As ever, director Joseph Adler has a knack for zeroing in on these characters' emotional conflicts and confusions and makes good use of Rich Simone's hyper-realistic attic set, an expansive series of cramped angles and levels that recall the visual conundrums of Escher. Jeff Quinn's somber lighting, all shadows and amber glow, helps add to the claustrophobic mood. While much of this production is right on target, there are a few misses: The story tracks through many months but the cast doesn't manage to express that passage clearly. The details of behavior fourteen months into their characters' self-imposed captivity appear identical to how they go about things on their first night. The peculiar threat of their hiding place also seems somewhat fuzzy. These people are literally walking on their doom -- any sound might betray them. How they cope with this dilemma and the long silences that accompany it could have been given more attention in the staging.
But these cavils aside, the GableStage production puts the emphasis where Kesselman clearly intends it -- on conflicted, flawed, thoroughly human characters and, especially, on Anne as a budding artist. An emerging writer, she knows she's different and that what she is doing -- capturing on paper her family's everyday life and her own private thoughts -- somehow has vital importance. There's an added dimension to this, of course. The story of Anne and her family is so widely known that there's little suspense in the outcome -- only when it will happen. This foreknowledge is ever present as the characters oscillate between despair and hope. When they hear of the Allied landing at Normandy they rejoice and breathe easier, daring to believe that their deliverance is at hand. We know it isn't, but that knowledge is not a liability -- it adds poignancy. It also underscores what Anne senses all along: that the power of words endures -- despite the ravages of time, tyranny, and death. Adler makes that message clear in the show's final moment: Years later, when Otto returns to the attic, he finds Anne's diary and sits down to read it, a vivid coda to a moving production.
Meanwhile the Coconut Grove Playhouse presents another tale of the dispossessed: Once Removed, Eduardo Machado's rueful look at one family in the Cuban-exile community, from the first few months after the Castro takeover to the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. The story concerns Olga, a fiery upper-class exile, who hates her new life in downscale Hialeah and resents Castro, the crass Americans, and her husband Fernando's inclination to assimilate. When Fernando finds work and a home for them in Dallas, she goes along, taking her resentments with her.
The roster of talent for this production is formidable. The multitalented Michael John Garces, who appears to have a lock on staging every CGP show that has to do with Cubans, directs Lucie Arnaz as Olga, backed by an all-Latin lineup of veteran actors. The result, however, is rather ghastly. Garces opts to play the first act in Hialeah as a bitter sitcom with a peppy, forced pace and more attention to one-line zingers than emotional dimension, while the second act in Dallas is milked for pathos. What's missing is much sympathy for Olga, whom Arnaz plays as a humorless harridan from start to finish. Machado's script, which works better as a critique of Cuban émigré confusion than as theater, doesn't help much -- Olga's gloomy naysaying isn't backed by much dramatic action until the play's end, when she decides to confront the reality of her situation.
It may be that Once Removed might work as a Cuban version of Chekhov -- a wry, fond take on flawed characters. Unfortunately the result here is unintentional self-stereotyping: upper-class whiners obsessed with what they've lost, not what they've been given. Compared with the quiet, real-life stories of enduring loss and anguish heard everywhere in South Florida, there's little dignity here and less drama.
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