CEDAR RAPIDS — The take-away from seeing “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Theatre Cedar Rapids is not in the way the people from the secret annex died, but in the way they lived.
Eight terrified Jews lived with heart and humanity in a most inhumane situation. And that is the beauty of this production, which opened to audible sobbing and a standing ovation Friday night. Performances continue through March 25.
The heart lives with Lily Palmersheim’s joyous and honest portrayal of Anne, guided with sensitivity and compassion by director Angie Toomsen. It’s nearly impossible to contain Anne’s energy, which annoys and alarms almost everyone sheltered above and behind her father’s office building in the heart of Amsterdam.
Otto Frank survived the horrors of Auschwitz. Anne and her sister died in Bergen-Belsen in the winter of 1945, shortly before the concentration camp was liberated. Her diary survived, however, left behind when the Nazis burst into the hiding place and arrested everyone: Otto and Edith Frank (Tad Paulson and Tricia Waechter), daughters Anne (Palmersheim) and Margot (Serena Collins); Otto’s business partner, Mr. Van Daan (Mike Wilhelm), his wife (Sara Maslowski) and their son, Peter (Ian Wolverton-Weiss); and a dentist, Mr. Dussel (Duane Larson).
They love fiercely through fear, and yet they quarrel over food, sleeping arrangements, noisy kids and Peter’s cat, Mouschi. Mr. Frank provides the voice of reason, either quietly or booming to get everyone’s attention — especially the bickering Van Daans.
His loyal non-Jewish employees — Miep Gies (Meg Norris) and Mr. Kraler (Ali Ajram) — bring them food, a radio and news of the world, filling them with hope for their eventual liberation. Gies found the diary in the ransacked hiding place, locked it up, and gave it to Mr. Frank when he returned.
Anne thought no one would care about the musings of a 13-year-old girl. She was wrong. Her story has been told, retold and rejuvenated with passages restored to the revised play to show the confusion of Anne’s adolescent physical and emotional evolution.
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I read the book in eighth grade, my college staged the play in the 1970s and I costumed TCR’s production of the newly revised version in 2000, so I know Anne’s words intimately. But Toomsen, her cast and crew have breathed new life into this production, allowing the audience to laugh as Anne teases Peter or when Mr. Frank mouths “help me” to his wife when Mrs. Van Daan wants to dance with him around the living room.
Most of all, the teenagers get to be teenagers, with all the angst and inner turmoil, shyness and blossoming crushes that lead to a first kiss.
Daniel Kelchen has designed and created a multilevel set, where the actors can get away from each other, but never escape their cramped confines darkened by blackout curtains, with light casting eerie shadows through slats. The actors speak without body mics, resulting in a more authentic soundscape, punctuated at key moments by haunting melodies.
This is a production full of heart and heartbreak, serving as a cautionary tale in a world where genocide existed before World War II and continues today. We can learn so much from this child, and from stellar productions like this that remind us, re-educate us and open the annex doors to yet another generation removed from the Holocaust.
The lessons don’t stop when the lights go out onstage. The lobby is filled with tall panels outlining Anne’s life and fate on one side, and the rise and fall of the Nazis on the other. The exhibit — developed by The Anne Frank House and sponsored in North America by The Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect — is open to the public free of charge from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through March 31 and during play performances. The Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission has provided a timeline exhibit for the lobby, as well.
The theater also is working with area organizations to create panel discussions from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and March 20 at the theater, and at 6:30 p.m. Monday in Beems Auditorium at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, with show excerpts at 5:30 p.m. Monday in the library’s Whipple Auditorium. Enhancing the experience is a library lobby display created by University of Iowa students.
And from March 16 to 31, Theatre Cedar Rapids will stage “Bent” in its lower-level Grandon Studio, offering a gut-wrenching look at the Nazi persecution of homosexuals and other marginalized groups.
Together, the two plays create this year’s Linge Series, designed to present a thought-provoking pairing with aligning themes that speak to the soul. Anne’s words provide the perfect starting point.
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org
IF YOU GO
l What: “The Diary of Anne Frank”
l Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
l When: To March 25; 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
l Rated: PG
l Tickets: $22 to $33, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
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l Related: Local and national lobby displays with timelines from Anne Frank’s life and the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through March 31 and during performances; Beyond the Stage discussions at Theatre Cedar Rapids and the Cedar Rapids Public Library; Theatrecr.org/attend/beyondthestage/