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'Diary of Anne Frank' intensely powerful — for both audience and cast

“The Diary of Anne Frank” opened last week at the Collaborative Theatre Project in Medford. It is a painful and important play, performed with vivid intensity.

Thirteen-year-old Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis in the heart of Amsterdam during World War II. The Franks, along with another family and a neighborhood dentist, were concealed in an attic storeroom for two years before they were betrayed. Except for Otto Frank, all died in the camps, as did millions of other Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and political dissidents.

To see the Collaborative Theatre Project’s 2018 production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” feels like standing on the train tracks, hypnotized as the train hurtles toward you. We know how this play will end and we know that this play is real, not fiction.

As the play opens, Anne and her family step into their hiding place and begin to understand the conditions of their survival: no shoes, no sound, no toilet, no windows, no laughter, no running — they must keep silent and still while workers are in the factory below. Sirens and storm troopers’ boots sound inhumanly loud and fill the theater. The cast is frozen with fear.

The CTP performers in “The Diary of Anne Frank” are phenomenal. They execute the range of emotions and responses of their characters with depth and compassion. The authenticity and truthfulness in the performance are stunning.

Anne Frank is played by Lisa-Marie Werfel, her sister Margot is played by Brittany Hreha, and their parents are portrayed by Lisa-Marie Newton and Russell Lloyd. Those in hiding with the Franks are Peter Van Daan, played by Evan Sheets, with Meagan Kirby and Mark Roper as his parents, and Mr. Dussel, the dentist, played by David Eisenberg. Two trusted employees bring food and news to the families, William Coyne in the role of Mr. Kraler, and Sophie Marilla Stricker as Miep Gies.

The cast is strong, all have major roles that are important, and they performed superbly. It is Anne’s voice, though, that sounds so clear throughout the performance. In the play, Werfel reads from the diary, her words reflecting a girl becoming a woman, full of adolescent anger and conscious of everything she has lost.

Werfel, originally of Ashland, traveled from Los Angeles to Southern Oregon to perform in the play, directed by Susan Aversa-Orrego. It’s a role that Werfel has dreamed of playing for as long as she can remember. “When I first read Anne’s diary, I felt this connection to her spirit,” Werfel says. “Her words were so visceral for me.”

The Collaborative Theatre Project set is grim, erected vertically and constrained by that narrow stage. The set seems a very real reconstruction of Anne’s hiding place, which she called The Annex, with its restrictive living quarters and stairs to the attic. There’s no privacy here, no place to be alone, and these talented CTP performers physically display the guarded and unnatural confinement of the small space in their movements.

The cast thoroughly researched their roles — David Eisenberg remembered his own family’s stories by talking with his father. “The family who came from Russia — many of them certainly died, my mother’s family from Lithuania perished, relatives in Germany and Hungary I’m sure all died in the war,” Eisenberg says. “That’s the connection for me personally.”

Eisenberg also worked with the cast to pronounce words correctly and to sing the Hanukkah song as candles were lit “the way we did it in Hebrew school,” he says. Newton translated the German text that explained the significance of the Nazi military anthems and their relevance to the script. Aversa-Orrego says the cast recorded those anthems for the performance, stamping their feet with microphones on the floor to recreate the sound of storm troopers in parade.

“At the end, everyone threw the music to the ground,” Aversa-Orrego says. “It was really hard for all of us.”

Anne kept a diary during her time in the attic hideaway, and the diary survived to serve as a testament of her experience. Otto Frank published his daughter’s diary as a book in 1947, and this very personal and vibrant firsthand testimony helped to awaken the world to the horrors of the Holocaust.

In 1955, Anne’s diary was adapted for the stage by Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, an adaptation that scholars note is bizarrely hopeful and emotionally dishonest, suppressing anti-Semitic sentiment and instead stressing human nobility. Wendy Kesselman adapted the 1955 work to explain the darker aspects of the diary.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is an important play now, at this time. Kesselman’s message, and Aversa-Orrego’s as well, is that we must beware of an incremental tolerance of disrespect, hate speech and bigotry that led, under Hitler, to genocide.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" continues through March 25 at Collaborative Theatre Project, 500 Medford Center, across from Tinseltown. See ctporegon.org or call 541-779-1055.

— Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, Oregon and can be reached at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Lisa-Marie Newton, left, Russell Lloyd, Lisa-Marie Werfel and Brittany Hreha appear in Collaborative Theatre Project's 'The Diary of Anne Frank.' [Photo by Gerry Katz]