The union seemed doomed to fail. Lincoln Park’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company is renowned for its emphasis on promoting new talent and its creative and insightful updating of canonical drama. It doesn’t get more canonical than The Diary of Anne Frank, the first theatrical adaptation of which received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1956. Today, more than half a century after the first dramatic rendition of her diary, Anne endures as an iconic literary voice, and the haunting play continues to captivate theatergoers. Integrating this play into Steppenwolf’s spring repertory posed both practical and ethical questions: Can this play, necessarily a period piece, be updated? From an ethical perspective, should it be? Moreover, why does this story, already familiar to the vast majority of theatergoers, need to be retold?
Martha Lavery, artistic director of the Steppenwolf Theatre, says that this play is a unique fusion of historicity and humanity that is more relevant now than ever. “The last generation of Holocaust survivors is upon us…. It becomes attendant upon all of us to elucidate our next generation to the memory. The gift of theater is to transmit that memory in human, specific, and personal terms—to make human the events of history,” Lavery said. Steppenwolf’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank is both true to the historical document and a timeless reminder of the universal human experience of maturating, of loving, and of loss.
Making her Steppenwolf debut in the lead role, 17-year-old Claire Elizabeth Saxe portrays Anne as an unruly, rambunctious youngster who is contemplative only in the pages of her diary. I found Saxe’s frenetic portrayal of Anne to be exhausting and lacking nuance. Despite her infantile interactions with other characters, Saxe was successful in her monologues, in which she finally portrayed Anne as a thoughtful young woman, rather than a precocious child. Anne’s narrative reveals that the girl possessed wisdom beyond her years, but all subtlety and reflection are lost in Saxe’s interactions with the other inhabitants of the Secret Annex.
Tina Landau’s directorial brilliance is most evident in the set design. A product of meticulous research (including a trip to the Annex itself), the set provides ample space for the drama to unfold while also connoting the claustrophobic conditions under which the Frank and van Daan families lived. Landau had originally intended to recreate the Annex according to its exact proportions. However, the building was tall and narrow and would not translate well onto a stage, so Landau revised her plan. Lines of tape represented the dimensions of each room on the stage, and the Annex was laid out as though it were a ranch. The set was entirely open, containing neither walls nor any divisions between the rooms. The open concept, embodied most proactively in the decision to keep the trap door leading to the outside world open throughout the duration of the play, is suggestive both of the possibility of freedom and of the fear of being discovered. I thought that the set design was the most successful appeal to the audience’s shared humanity, as it forced the audience into the Annex and into two years of simultaneous fear and nervous hope.
The scene in which the Annex is ransacked and its inhabitants taken away was brutal and terrifying. As two Nazi officers stormed up the stairs and began tearing the hideout apart, I forgot that I was watching a play. Moreover, I forgot that I was not part of the event unfolding in front of me, that I would not be dragged away from my family and thrown onto a train headed for the East. This scene allowed me to conceptualize the horror of being captured by the Nazis in a way I never had before. As Lavery had promised, I viewed the event not as an intangible historical reality, but in human terms—as something that could happen to someone I knew, as something that could happen to me.
The play’s greatest achievement is the stillness that follows the ravaging of the Annex. Once the screams and the footsteps fade away down the stairs, the audience is left to gape at the destroyed storeroom-cum-home and reflect upon the barbarity of what just occurred. The juxtaposition between the domesticity of the dinner scene, the awful militancy of the discovery, and the emptiness of the aftermath is chilling. The contrast between liveliness and empty silence was, for me, the most poignant and moving moment of the entire play. As Otto Frank, played by seasoned actor Yasen Peyankov, returns to the Annex as the only survivor, the audience is again presented with the human side of history. As Mr. Frank tearfully recounted the deaths of his wife and daughters, the audience—myself included—wept along with him. I agree with Lavery—the play does need to be retold, again and again, because it is not just a piece of Holocaust literature, but a reflection on life and loss. We are still loving and we are still losing, and perhaps we do need The Diary of Anne Frank to remind us that we are not alone.