Writers' deeply felt 'Anne Frank' mesmerizes audience

 
 
Updated 3/6/2015 2:01 PM
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  • Sophie Thatcher, 14, plays Anne in Writers Theatre's "The Diary of Anne Frank."

    Sophie Thatcher, 14, plays Anne in Writers Theatre's "The Diary of Anne Frank." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Romance blossoms between Anne (Sophie Thatcher) and Peter van Daan (Antonio Zhiurinskas) in Writers Theatre's intimate, affecting revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank."

    Romance blossoms between Anne (Sophie Thatcher) and Peter van Daan (Antonio Zhiurinskas) in Writers Theatre's intimate, affecting revival of "The Diary of Anne Frank." Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Otto Frank (Sean Fortunato) comforts his daughter Anne (Sophie Thatcher) in "The Diary of Anne Frank," running through June 28 at Writers Theatre.

    Otto Frank (Sean Fortunato) comforts his daughter Anne (Sophie Thatcher) in "The Diary of Anne Frank," running through June 28 at Writers Theatre. Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

"It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."

Written by Anne Frank during the two years she and the rest of her Jewish family hid from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, those words reflect the remarkably perceptive teenager's unwavering hope and faith in humanity.

That spirit animates director Kimberly Senior's intimate, introspective production of "The Diary of Anne Frank." It's evident in the fleeting expressions of compassion -- an encouraging smile, a hand on the shoulder -- the occupants of the hidden annex show each other in Senior's wonderfully detailed, exquisitely acted Writers Theatre revival. Such small kindnesses mitigate the squabbles and petty jealousies that arise among terrified people confined in cramped quarters, for whom discovery means deportation and likely death.

Perhaps no venue better conveys their confinement than the back of a bookstore in Glencoe, which is where this production of Wendy Kesselman's adaptation of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's play unfolds.

Theatergoers enter through a door concealed by a bookcase (like the actual secret annex) and proceed down a narrow hallway to Jack Magaw's aptly claustrophobic set that places audience within arm's length of the actors, enhancing the immediacy of Senior's production.

Credit rests with the astute cast featuring teenage Sophie Thatcher, disarming and natural in the titular role. Playful, vulnerable, self-aware, Thatcher is every inch her character. So too is the self-possessed Sean Fortunato, whose measured turn as Anne's father Otto (the annex's sole survivor and guarantor of Anne's legacy) anchors the production. His mesmerizing epilogue transfixed opening night audience members, who sat silently, barely breathing, applause being an inadequate response.

Heidi Kettenring and Lance Baker are superb as Mrs. and Mr. van Daan. Baker, resignation etched into his face, registers shell-shock from the moment he appears onstage, while the ever-authentic Kettenring reveals the profound love and compassion beneath Petronella van Daan's apparent vanity. There's also fine work from Lila Morse as Anne's older sister Margot; Antonio Zhiurinskas as 16-year-old Peter van Daan; Kevin Gudahl as Mr. Dussel, the dentist, and Kristina Valada-Viars, whose poignant portrayal of Edith Frank reveals frustration with and abiding love for her younger daughter. Leah Karpel defines compassion as Miep Gies, who joins with Coburn Goss' Mr. Kraler as the righteous gentiles who risked their lives in a failed effort to save their friends.

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