Anne Frank and Baruch de Spinoza: Shut in and Cast Out
"I want to go on living after my death," Anne Frank wrote in her diary around the age of 14. She wanted to be a professional writer when she grew up, a novelist maybe. Her book, she said in the diary, would be based on the two years she spent hiding from the Nazis with her family and four other Jews in the garret of an Amsterdam office building. She would call her novel The Secret Annex, she wrote, and it would make her famous.
Instead, it was her handwritten diary that lived on after her death in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, not long before the Allies liberated it. Published in 1947 by her father Otto, the only member of her family who survived the war, The Diary of Anne Frank has been adapted many times for stage, film, television and, in the dramatization by Wendy Kesselman (based on the original play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett), back to the stage again. (This is the one a young Natalie Portman did on Broadway in 1997.)
There's more interior dialogue in this one taken from Anne's diary entries, especially about her Jewish identity. Amid the bleakness of attic life — no movement or talking until 6 p.m., never enough food — it is Anne who creates homemade Hanukkah gifts for everyone, a happy moment of normalcy achieved by maintaining a beloved Jewish tradition.
In the solid production now running at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, director Terry Martin has found a charming young actress, Molly Franco, for the title role. Franco possesses that special glow-from-within quality that made a teenage Susan Strasberg a star when The Diary of Anne Frank debuted in New York in 1955, and she manages to erase anything that might read "modern girl" in her portrayal.
Franco's Anne is spunky without seeming obnoxious, innocent without tipping over into angelic. In her budding puppy-love with fellow attic dweller Peter Van Daan (Travis Tope, who's also good), she vibrates with excitement, even though their "dates" take place under the eaves. Franco makes Anne Frank real for the audience, and that's the best you can ask. The role deserves that.
The rest of the cast works fine as a tight ensemble moving carefully around designer Clare Floyd Devries' ingenious three-story top-floor set. Paul Taylor is especially good as Mr. Van Daan, who in real life was Otto Frank's business partner. He's a blowhard who dreams only of gorging on cream cakes, ripping his wife's beloved fur coat from her hands to sell when they need money, not caring that it's her last memento of a middle-class life they once shared. Lucia Welch, as Mrs. Van Daan, gives that scene a powerful wallop of sadness.
Ted Wold brings dark neurotic tics to the role of Mr. Dussel, the dentist who joins the Franks and Van Daans in their tiny rooms. As Anne's sister Margot, Jessica Renee Russell matures from nervous teen in early scenes to thoughtful young woman toward the end. She had hoped for a career in nursing. She died in the camp with Anne.
About 300 years before the Nazis found Anne Frank in the secret annex, the Jews of Amsterdam were going after one of their own, a young philosopher named Baruch de Spinoza. In David Ives' deeply engaging, fact-based play New Jerusalem, now running at Fort Worth's Stage West, Spinoza, played by attractive newcomer Garret Storms, is grilled by his rabbi (Jim Covault) and a Calvinist inquisitor (Russell Dean Schultz, also new to Stage West) about his belief in God.
It unfolds like a courtroom drama, but with great bursts of wit, as Spinoza is forced to explain his radical rejection of traditional religious dogma. (One character notes that "Jews don't have dogma ... just bickering.") God and nature are one, argues Spinoza, therefore all religions are moot. Man must simply live by natural laws, since God made nature a perfect system.
Reducing religious belief merely to enjoying gravity and loving one's neighbor were heretical ideas in the 17th century, so Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community, cut off from family and friends.
The playwright hangs heavy ideas out for consideration in New Jerusalem, but in a way that's provocative and entertaining. What could become static debate scenes are made lively by the unfussy acting and masterly vocal work of Stage West's cast, directed by Jerry Russell. For a quietly dazzling two hours of drama, give Spinoza a spin.
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