Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” shimmers with professional polish and marks a promising local debut for director Marissa Wolf, the Rep’s director of new work. If it lacks immediacy, the fault is not in the performances but in the scenic design — and our collective familiarity with the story.
The play premiered on Broadway in 1955. Playwrights Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett based the drama on the famous diary kept by a precocious teenage girl in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam under constant threat of discovery and deportation to death camps. The real Anne Frank is such a pervasive symbol in the history of World War II, a lot of people may feel like they’ve seen the play before, even if they haven’t.
Ultimately Anne died of typhus at the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp only months before World War II ended.
Indeed, the most heartbreaking aspect of this tale about the Frank family and others who lived in secrecy in a garret for more than two years is how close they came to being saved from the murderous Nazi extermination program. The Allies had already begun the invasion on the beaches of Normandy and, as the play depicts, the people in hiding listened excitedly to BBC reports, certain that Amsterdam would soon be liberated.
The Goodrich-Hackett play was adapted by Wendy Kesselman in the 1990s to reflect a revised version of the diary that revealed more of Anne’s anger as well as her budding sexuality.
Rachel Shapiro plays the title role in the Rep production with youthful enthusiasm. The role requires an actress to walk a fine line. Anne can be obnoxious because of her propensity for talking too much and reacting spontaneously to virtually every situation, and she cultivates ego-driven dreams of becoming a writer. Even so, she’s heartbreakingly vulnerable. Shapiro does a reasonably good job of maintaining that precarious balance.
The show features some outstanding performances. As Anne’s parents, veteran actor Lenny Wolpe makes a strong impression as kindly, endlessly patient Otto Frank in his Rep debut; and Peggy Friesen as Edith Frank delivers some of her best work, capturing a mother’s exasperation at dealing with the bratty Anne while wondering why the Allies don’t bomb the railroad tracks that lead to the death camps.
Victor Raider-Wexler and Merle Moores, two of the city’s finest character actors, are at their best as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. Raider-Wexler renders the character’s increasing desperation in utterly convincing terms, and Moores captures a woman’s seemingly superficial desire to hang on to luxuries from the past even in hiding.
Nice work is registered by Daniel Beeman as Peter Van Daan, the boy who falls in love with Anne; Martin S. Buchanan as the fidgety dentist Mr. Dussel; and Nicole Marie Green as Margot, Anne’s older sister, who is as thoughtful as Anne but much quieter. Shanna Jones and Andy Perkins, as people who aided the Franks and the others in hiding, are clear and effective.
Melissa Torchia’s costumes, Donna Ruzika’s lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ sound design add crucial detail and texture to a play that largely consists of people conversing in rooms.
The scenic design by Maya Linke is an impressive piece of work on its own terms. But the multilevel evocation of the hidden apartment places the actors at a remove from the audience. As a result, explosive scenes and tender moments are viewed from a distance. This is a story of people living in forced intimacy, but the staging sacrifices any sense of claustrophobia.
“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through Feb. 21 at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry St. Call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.