There’s a scene in Olney Theatre Center’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” where the Frank and Van Daan families and Mr. Dussel experience a fleeting moment of hope. Hidden in plain sight, in a dark, cramped Amsterdam attic, they listen to the voice of Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower in a rare radio transmission.
The army of liberation had arrived at last, storming the beaches of Normandy and preparing to defeat the Nazis and free the occupied nations of Europe. The D-Day landings had started.
“My grandfather fought with the Allies at Normandy—a Jew,” said Carolyn Faye Kramer, who plays the title role in the beloved play’s latest version, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and adapted by Wendy Kesselman. “I grew up extremely close to my grandparents. I was a visual artist, and I drew portraits—especially of my grandfather, with the war as a background.”
But World War II wasn’t something her grandfather liked to talk about during Kramer’s childhood in a Boston suburb, “except to remind us of the existence of anti-Semitism.”
“I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood,” she added. “Growing up, I heard that Jews made up a small population of the world—but I didn’t feel it.”
What Kramer did feel was a connection with Anne Frank, the German-born student who hid from the Nazis, hoped for the best, and journaled her experience with brilliance, humor and humanity, dying at Bergen-Belsen a few months before her 16th birthday.
The first monologue Kramer ever auditioned with in high school came from an older version of the play; she played Anne’s sister Margot when she was 19, and even though decades divide their lifetimes, she can understand the cultural and family dynamics under which Anne at times chafed. “We grew up with an awareness of how lucky we were, me and my sisters,” Kramer explained. “But there was also a sense of ‘don’t fly too high: the sun will burn you!’”
So far, Kramer, a Northwestern University graduate with a bachelor of science degree in theater, is flying quite nicely, having performed Off Broadway and in regional theater and landing film and television roles. This is her first play at Olney; she admires Anne’s energy, empathy and intelligence.
“She feels everything,” Kramer said. “She knows what’s going on because she’s too smart not to know, and she’s a humanist: she has that famous quote, ‘In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.’
“She inspires peace and compassion in a real way, not a cheesy way,” Kramer added. “She’s funny. You read her diary and realize: she is hilarious, and so vivid when she describes things. As a writer, she’s a genius.”
She might still be alive today, Anne Frank, if the world had been different. Imagine: An iconic author in her dignified dotage, perhaps, or an anonymous great-grandmother cherished by a large loving family. An octogenarian mah-jongg ace at an assisted-living facility, telling and re-telling the story of how her father got her family out of war-torn Europe. Just in time, she’d say, he brought them from Amsterdam—tired and poor—to the welcoming refuge of America.
But America wasn’t taking German refugees after 1941, not even Jewish Germans rendered stateless by the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. He had hoped to flee to the U.S., but in the real world, Otto Frank—played to heartbreaking perfection by Olney artistic associate Paul Morella—had to choose a different plan.
Desperate, Otto Frank hid his family in a secret annex behind his offices at Prinsengracht 263, relying on the kindness of “righteous gentiles” like Miep Gies for help. Generous, he took in another refugee family and then another refugee, even though it made conditions deplorable. And after the war, alone and adrift, he found, edited and published Anne’s diary, hoping the world would never forget.
“It’s the story of good, decent, flawed, beautiful human beings forced into a difficult situation,” said the play’s director, Derek Goldman, an artistic associate at Olney as well as a professor of theater and performance studies at Georgetown University, where he is the co-founding director of the Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics.
A Boston native and Northwestern alum like Kramer, Goldman has directed more than 75 productions, authored 25-plus professionally produced plays and adaptations, and examined the plight of refugees and humanity’s ongoing insistence on genocide in plays like “In Darfur” and “Our Class” at Theater J, while hosting theater companies from Belarus, Belgrade, Congo and other geo-political hotspots.
“I was actually commissioned at 22 to develop my own new play about Anne Frank,” said Goldman, whose “Right as Rain” was first performed in connection with the Anne Frank in the World International Exhibit, becoming the foundation of the theater company he started in Chicago. “My first job out of college.”
So while Goldman first learned about Anne Frank in second grade, first wrote about her as a young playwright, and spent decades telling her story as a Holocaust educator, he said he took the helm of this production to create something new, a quietly persuasive picture of how refugees live and die.
“It’s not spectacle-based theater,” he pointed out. “Just look at the role of quiet in their lives—that’s what allowed us to hone in on what theater can do, which in this case is to bring the audience in there, breath for breath.
“Our team, almost by default because of the parameters of the (Mulitz-Gudelsky) lab, had the opportunity and challenge of fitting the story into a more intimate space.
“We are inviting the audience to sit in the annex with us.”
And to get to know Anne’s fellow refugees in a whole new way, as the extraordinary cast imbues every character with a humanity and grace that the original diary—its subsequent updates as more material and previously redacted passages have become available are reflected in this adaptation—failed to fully address.
“We’re not changing the play,” he said. “We’re being quite faithful to Wendy Kesselman’s adaptation, and engaging with the idea that one, as an artist, can humanize the stories.
“You don’t need to do anything other than tell it deeply and honestly,” he added. “And then you have to trust an audience to bring in what they’ll bring in.”
“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through Oct. 23 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:45 p.m.; matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 1:45 p.m., with no matinee on Sept. 28. Tickets start at $45. Visit www.olneytheatre.org.