There have been countless productions of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” its uplifting theme especially suitable for amateur theaters. When cutting-edge Burning Coal Theatre Company schedules it, expectations are set for new approaches and fresh insights. The production’s inventive staging does thrust the audience into the story’s claustrophobic realities, but the direction and acting follow a safely conventional path.
Young Anne’s diary, written while her family and four other Jewish citizens hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, was published in expurgated form in 1947. Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1955 play further reduced Anne’s candid observations into a simplified, inspirational tale.
The 1997 Broadway revival revised the script, adding revealing truths about Anne’s budding sexuality and the household’s tensions, plus harrowing details about the occupants’ ultimate fates. Director Abdelfattah Abusrour wisely combines both versions at Burning Coal, but many clichéd situations remain, along with little dramatic drive and weight.
Abusrour deserves credit for realistically orchestrating the play’s daily life – cooking, mending, sleeping – taking place inches away from the audience. Elizabeth Newton’s set is situated at the theater’s balcony level, requiring the audience to walk upstairs to a cramped space near the theater’s ceiling to seats ringing the playing area. The actors comfortably go about their routines despite such close scrutiny.
But the cast of established actors is rarely asked to go beyond the stock situations. Thom Haynes as frustrated Mr. van Daan and Jenn Suchanec as his high-minded wife bicker and complain with little nuance, while Al Singer’s Mr. Dussel is a typical crank. Erin Tito makes Mrs. Frank a warm if traditional mother; John Allore gives kindly Mr. Frank welcome understanding and speaks the epilog with gripping emotion. Samantha Rahn’s Anne is appropriately chirpy and self-centered at first, transitioning to more maturity later on, but her delivery has wearing intensity and unrelenting edge.
Minor roles offer the most range. Josh Martin’s Peter van Daan subtly develops from angry loner to Anne’s romantic admirer; Anna Grey Voelker offers lovely detail as Anne’s quiet sister Margot; Lucius Robinson’s Mr. Kraler and Mikaela Saccoccio’s Mies Giep project believable sympathy as they bring supplies and hope.
Burning Coal’s production breaks no new ground but the subject matter can still move audiences, enhanced by what they already know of its history.