“The Diary of Anne Frank” recounts story never to be forgotten

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Photo Courtesy of Theatre Palisades EXTRAORDINARY LIFE: Anne (Sigi Gradwohl) and her mother (Sabra Miller) disagree on almost everything.

Man’s inhumanity to man is something I will never understand, any more than Anne Frank did while she and her family endured living in the hidden space above business offices in Amsterdam until Sept. 3, 1944 when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz on the last transport to the death camp. Anne’s father survived and found her diary after the war and thankfully shared it with the world so the rest of us could get to know her.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” will continue through Feb. 22 with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sunday shows at 2 p.m. at Theatre Palisades Pierson Playhouse, located at 941 Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades. 

The play begins with Otto Frank returning to the family-hiding place after his release from Auschwitz when the camp was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945. With worldwide celebrations of its 70th anniversary this week, now is the perfect time to experience the story never to be forgotten about Anne’s two-year ordeal hiding with her family during the German occupation of the Netherlands.  This is a story of life, not death – a true depiction of raw, daily survival during the Holocaust.

Last year, Sabrina Lloyd directed the play with a skillful hand and emotional insight at the black box Cupcake Theater in Hollywood.  Unlike that production of the 1997 revision of the play, Theatre Palisades is presenting the original 1955 version, which won the Tony Award for Best Play.  The biggest difference is that we see Anne develop from a flighty young girl to a very mature teenager thanks to the brilliant performance of Sigi Gradwohl, who also starred as Anne in the Cupcake production. Ms. Gradwohl was born to play the role.

Told with wit and sentiment, this production is sure to hit home with a truth that still resonates today as Gradwohl embodies Anne’s heart and soul, wide-eyed wonder and love of her own independent spirit. Gradwohl even resembles Anne physically and is tied to the real Anne Frank through her own grandfather who went to school with Anne in Amsterdam. Her performance will allow you to experience the independent and joyful young girl Anne was – and always will be in our hearts and minds.

Philip Bartolf portrays Anne’s loving father Otto Frank, a man who simply wants the best for his family and tries to protect them as best he can. “We may be locked up, but they can’t lock up our minds,” is his motto. Anne has a strained relationship with her mother Edith Frank (Sabra Miller), neither one really understanding the other.  When tempers flare, sparks fly!  Anne’s sister Margot (Courtney Long) is a minor character in the play, always present but never having much to say. Thankfully Ms. Long lives the role moment-to-moment, sharing the lonely girl’s isolation no matter where she is onstage.  In fact, each of the actors is onstage throughout the play, always creating moments of character development thanks to director Lloyd.

We first meet Peter Van Daan (Garret Camilleri) as a shy and gangly teenager, preferring to stay in his tiny room with his cat rather than relate to the others.  As time passes, Camilleri and Gradwohl let us see Peter and Anne’s relationship develop as the shy boy learns to deal with the more direct and curious Anne. I have always wondered how deep their relationship went, but those answers are not in this production nor in Anne’s diary as her father edited the book before it was published.

Craig Stevens and Elise Falanga are the bickering and selfish Van Daans, not a couple with whom anyone would like to be for more than a few minutes, let alone two years in hiding. Their bedroom is on the second level of Sherman Wayne’s marvelously realistic and gritty set, and the two actors are always present, sharing private moments allowing us to see what makes their relationship tick.  But given how different this couple is from the Franks, if Mr. Van Daan and Otto Frank had not been business partners, I doubt these two families would have agreed to go into hiding together.  Even so, there are times of great joy and celebration for all, most notably during a Hanukkah celebration as Anne presents each with a handmade gift.

Art Roberts is the fussy latecomer, Mr. Dussel, the dentist.  He and Anne share a room, but little else.  There is definitely no love lost between these two. Jessica Brydon is the caring and concerned Miep Gies who brings news and supplies along with Philip Apoian as the seemingly carefree Mr. Kraler.  But as time progresses, the insanity of the outside world creeps in each time there two bring much-needed supplies.  And when Meip walks in and Anne runs to smell the fresh air on her clothing, you will get a true sense of the fractured reality Anne faced being locked away from the outside world.

Along with Sherman Wayne’s artistic set and lighting design, kudos go to Susan Stangl for the evocative music and threatening sound effects which brought the reality of those hiding in fear into harsh reality.  This is a story to share with your entire family – and one that should never be forgotten.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett; Directed by Sabrina Lloyd with Assistant Director Brynn Sillyman; Produced by Nona Hale and Sherman Wayne. Tickets for adult are $20; for seniors and students they are $18. For tickets persons interested can call the box office at (310) 454-1970. Free parking is available.

Interesting Note: Sigi Gradwohl’s grandfather, Peter Neuhaus, went to the Montessori school in Amsterdam with Anne Frank. Sigi has listened to her grandfather’s stories about Amsterdam and the atmosphere of the chilling Nazi times. These stories have impacted Sigi and will unquestionably influence her performance. Sigi still visits her grandfather each year where he lives in Zurich, Switzerland.