There’s no need to present an extravagant production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” with all the bells and whistles available in the modern theater. The diary itself is one of the most powerful documents of the 20th century. It needs no embellishment; the story is dramatic enough as is.
So give credit to Rochester Civic Theatre and director Kevin Miller for scaling down the current production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which opened Friday and runs through Feb. 24.
Presented on a simple, practically bare stage, with only a handful of props, illuminated by evocative lighting design, the Civic’s production allows nothing to distract from the story of a Jewish family, their precocious daughter, and their desperate attempt to hang onto life by hiding for more than two years in what is basically an attic.
The story is built, of course, around Anne, who is 13 when her family enters the hiding place. Miller has discovered a gem in young actor Ella Frank, a Mayo High School freshman, who makes her Civic debut as Anne. Ella manages to project the vivacious personality that makes the ultimate loss of Anne such a tragedy.
Fellow Mayo High School student Emma Bransford is Anne’s older sister, Margot, and presents her as quiet, thoughtful and mature. But even Margo has a breaking point, eventually.
The same goes for Peter van Daan, played with finesse by newcomer Lance Urbick.
In fact, everyone in the attic breaks at some point, and we understand why as we’re exposed to their petty, annoying habits. They are humanity in microcosm, willing to rob each other of morsels of food, yet also, as Anne believed, still basically good people.
Michael Stebbins portrays Otto Frank, Anne’s father, as a man of incredible reason and strength — until after the war, when he finds Anne’s diary and learns of her fate. Laurie Dawn is colorful as the mercurial Mrs. Van Daan, while Jon Andrew Hegge is Mr. Van Daan. Catherine O’Connor is Mrs. Frank, and Charles Fraser is Dr. Dussel, the troublesome dentist.
Jamie Case is Miep, and Civic veteran Rich Dietman is Mr. Kraler, the Dutch people who hide and care for the Franks and Van Daans.
The play is presented in the round, which brings us that much closer to the characters. The audience practically inhabits their hiding place with them.
As Miller says in his program notes, we know how this is going to end. We know the Nazis are going to come and take them away eventually. But the tension that is built into this production by the strict focus on the people and the words makes for a powerful and emotional experience.