“The Diary of Anne Frank” — A Reason to Remember

Jessica Mortellaro as Anne Frank and Georgia Warner as Margot Frank (Jerry Lamonica photo).
Jessica Mortellaro as Anne Frank and Georgia Warner as Margot Frank (Jerry Lamonica photo).

By Annette Hinkle

Human history may be long, but memory is fleeting — lasting only as long as there is someone left to tell the tale.

Though the details of WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust are well-documented in film and in writing and not likely to be lost any time soon, what is lost on a daily basis are first hand accounts of the terror with which Europe’s population — particularly its Jews — lived during the war years.

Reliving history is exactly what the Bay Street Theatre has set out to do with its current vibrant and moving production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which runs through Tuesday in Sag Harbor. The play, written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, is part of Bay Street Theatre’s Literature Live! program, and while geared toward middle and high school students who are reading Anne Frank’s diary as part of their curriculum, adult audiences will be reminded of the power of Anne’s tale through this staging.

We know, of course, how this tragic story ends, but there is an entire generation that no longer has living relatives to tell those first hand stories of World War II and why the stakes were so high. That’s what makes the play so effective and something that should be required viewing for local students (Bay Street recommends it for ages 13 and up).

Jessica Mortellaro stars as Anne Frank, the girl who grows from adolescence to womanhood before our eyes during two years of confinement in the tiny Amsterdam annex. It’s easy to understand why the adults get so impatient with her. Mortellaro’s Anne is a whirling dervish, with a frenetic energy that makes the small space seem even smaller.

Contrasting Anne’s free spirit is her subdued and quiet older sister Margot (Georgia Warner) who goes about the business of doing what’s expected of her in a way that only serves to highlight’s Anne’s faults.

Anne battles often with Mrs. Frank, her beleaguered mother played by Lydia Franco-Hodges. It’s a difficult time for a daughter and mother to be cooped up in such a tight space, and sad this family bond will not have time to heal beyond the difficult years.

Adding fuel to the volatility of personality clashes are Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (played by real-life husband and wife duo Josh Gladstone and Kate Mueth) and their teenage son Peter (Sawyer Avery) who will eventually become Anne’s first boyfriend and her sole source of joy in the annex. Also confined in the space is the humorless Mr. Dussel (Terrance Fiore), who shares a room with Anne and takes every opportunity he can to criticize her.

Attempting to hold it all together is the patient and wise Mr. Frank (Keith Cornelius) who Anne turns to for comfort and advice, much to her mother’s dismay. Bringing the group everything they need to survive from the outside is Miep (Chloë Dirksen) and Mr. Kraler (Joe Pallister).

Director Joe Minutillo does nice work here, giving the actors ample opportunity to portray the stress, frustration and fear inherent within and beyond the annex. There are moments where each character is seen through invisible walls moving in his or her own small space in search of a little solace and privacy. Also present is the tension inherent in helplessness. The uncertainty of what’s happening in the outside world and the fact their survival depends on just two people — Miep and Mr. Kraler — who could be arrested without their knowledge at any moment add to the discomfort.

And then there’s Anne. She’s far too good for many of the adults in the room, particularly Mr. Van Daann who selfishly sneaks food in the night, and his often hysterical wife who clings to the material trappings of her earlier life while shamelessly hitting on Mr. Frank in front of his wife.

Though everyone knows how this one ends, witnessing the details of Anne’s diary acted out adds a dimension that her words alone can not convey. Gary Hygom’s compact multi-level set adds to the claustrophobic nature of the living conditions. Particularly effective early in the production is black and white newsreel film footage depicting Hitler’s advance which is projected over the set. Also effective are the sounds of war planes overhead and voices in the street below, all offered to the residents of the annex without the benefit of context.

Ultimately what makes the play so moving is the fact it’s also a love story, and a  heartbreaking one at that. Just as young Anne and Peter are experiencing their first adult relationship, the rest of the world is falling apart around them.

Would Anne’s story be as compelling had it been written by someone other than a young girl growing into adulthood? Probably not. Anne’s optimism and belief in the goodness of people goes hand in hand with her ability to find love with the boy in the attic. It’s a fragile and emotional time in any girl’s life, one marked by both tears and joy. Jaded adults do not often recall that kind of emotion during war and that’s what makes the story both magical and ultimately tragic.

Adding a powerful punctuation point to weekday shows is a presentation by Werner Reich, who survived Auschwitz, an inspection by the notorious Josef Mengele and the 1945 death march from the camp which Peter, Anne’s boyfriend, was also on. Though as a Holocaust survivor he describes in detail the horrors of his imprisonment in the concentration camps, Werner’s presentation is ultimately about how 12 million people died under Nazi rule (six million of them Jews) while good people stood by and did nothing. He implores his audiences to stand up against oppression and bullying in a presentation that is riveting and relevant both for students and adults.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs through Tuesday, November 26, 2013. Tickets are $12 for students and $25 for adults. Call the box office at 725-9500 to reserve or buy online at www.baystreet.org.