March 22, 2007
Theater: Updated ‘Anne Frank’ production shows harder side, and tears
The Rubicon, Ventura's ambitious professional theater company, offended a small number of local Jewish theatergoers last December by putting on a musical play, "Back Home Again: A John Denver Christmas Show," a collection of the late singer's holiday songs, which not surprisingly included some specifically Christmas melodies. Some thin-skinned Jewish patrons walked out in protest, which was a pity.
But the Rubicon has won back most of that wayward crowd with its latest production, "The Diary of Anne Frank," with high-profile actors Bruce Weitz as Anne's father, Otto, and Linda Purl as Mrs. Van Daan, the wife of one of the men hiding out in the concealed attic of Frank's Amsterdam office in l944. Talented 14-year-old, Chicago-born actress Lauren Patten plays the 13-year-old Anne, who is 15 by the time the hideaway is discovered and they are shipped to concentration camps in the waning months of World War II.
Frankly, you can't go wrong with "Anne Frank." It's such a powerful play even decades after it was first produced on Broadway, as adapted by Lillian Hellman. Her diary has been translated into 67 languages, and the book has become part of American students' required reading list.
This production, which runs through April 1, is very much a family affair. James O'Neil, who founded the Rubicon with his wife, Karyl Lynn Burns, directs the play, and Burns, the driving force behind Rubicon's success, plays Anne's mother.
This version is Wendy Kesselman's 1997 adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl," which includes additional pages from Anne's writings.
It is an updated, tougher, harder-edged story that emphasizes the teenager's growing sexuality, as well as the family's Jewishness, often previously de-emphasized in misplaced attempts at universality -- which includes a heart-warming Chanukah celebration with the entire cast perfectly reciting the Hebrew blessings.
This version's epilogue does not sugarcoat the story, with Weitz reporting in graphic detail on the terrible fate of the play's protagonists, including Anne's death in Bergen-Belsen at age 15.
For many, this is probably their first stage exposure to this classic story, although it has been mounted on stage and screens, big and small, many times since its publication.
O'Neil opted for a production with commendable emphasis on the humanity of the characters, with all their often contradictory virtues and failings. But the direction was sometimes muddy and the arrival of the Nazis veers toward caricature and is strangely anti-climactic.
Nevertheless, it is a first-class effort with some outstanding performances and a deep sincerity underlying the entire production. Well worth the trip to Ventura.
"The Diary of Anne Frank" runs through April 1 at the Rubicon, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Ivor Davis writes for The New York Times and Los Angeles Times syndicates.