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POWERFUL DRAMA ‘THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK’ AT PALM CANYON THEATRE PALM SPRINGS, CA.

By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

Timing is everything as the saying goes in show business. It can’t be taught.  Either performers have it or they don’t.  The same could be said for subject matter written for the theatre and for the cinema.  It’s a question of when is the original story “ready” for an audience?  And when should those plays and movies be revisited again? In the case of movies, we have TCM to comfort or alert us.  In the world of the stage, we rely on revivals.

The world is once again drifting into dangerous and perilous waters with the rise of intolerance, hate, violence, and a disregard for accepted societal rules and laws. Alas, we humans have short memories when it comes to not learning from our past mistakes.

This is why the play “The Diary of Anne Frank”, at the Palm Canyon Theatre (PCT) in Palm Springs, is a must-see production no matter wherever and/or whenever it is staged.  It’s a poignantly dramatized play written 76 years ago by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, that unfortunately is very relevant today.

It appears that a storm warning from our past is approaching in the 21st century in the form of civil unrest and increased protests involving extreme right-wing leaning nationalistic agendas and movements both in America and abroad.  “Whether the rock hits the jug or the jug hits the rock… it’s usually not very good for the jug”, according to Sancho Panza, the character in the musical “Man of La Mancha. And he is absolutely correct in his 20th century whimsical, pithy, epigram.

Wonderfully staged by theatre Founder and director Dr. William Layne, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, is a play with a message that is timeless and should be both heeded and celebrated at the same time.  The true and factual story of 14-year-old German/Jewish teenager Anne Frank and her diary – which she kept during WW II – while in hiding with her family in Holland from the Nazi government’s obsession to murder all of European Jewry.

Her story became the basis for the powerful and heartfelt play and the movie that followed based on her famous diary. She died in a Nazi concentration camp 18 months before WW II ended.  But her personal holocaust story lives on to inspire us to listen to our better angels.  It’s become a symbol of tolerance, strength, and hope in the face of adversity.

Playing the lead role of Anne is a daunting task for any actor.  The part is usually tackled by teenage actors or older, who range from 16 to 20 years of age due to its emotional demands.  Experienced actor Susan Strasberg, was 17 when she performed as Anne in the Broadway debut in 1955 garnering a coveted Tony Award nomination in the process.  I can’t recall any other actor playing Anne younger than 17… until now.

In the PCT production, the role of Anne is performed by 12-year-old Ava Tethel. The young actor delivers an astonishing nuanced performance for one so young.  She is in the moment in all her scenes with actors up to five times her age and she holds her own.  It helps, however, when one comes from a theatrical family.  She is the granddaughter of director William Layne and the daughter of actor, choreographer, and theatre co-artistic director Se Layne and daughter of actor/director Rodney Tethel.

It’s also fortunate to be surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast.  Emmy-winning Professional Sports announcer for the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars Hockey team, Ralph Strangis, stars as Otto Frank in the powerful performance as the head of the Frank family. Who knew a professional hockey broadcaster could bring such empathy and tenderness to the stage?

The solid cast of ten actors perform both as an effective and as an affecting drama ensemble whose dark and somber performances at times, are leavened with light comedy moments. Even in the worse situations in life, humorous dialogue occurs.  If the subject matter of the Holocaust wasn’t so dire, the characters in this production would be right at home in playing a family in any American TV sit-com. 

In the “Diary of Anne Frank”, the story retells in a flashback, what took place when the Frank family of Otto, his wife Edith (Chandra Smith), his two daughters Margot (Ashley Davies), and young Anne are forced to flee Hitler’s Germany to Holland.  When Holland becomes occupied, all Jewish refugees are rounded up; destined for the concentration camps. Others like the Frank’s went into hiding protected by gentiles who if they were discovered harboring Jews also could be arrested themselves.

The gentile home-owner Mr. Kraler, who hides and protects Jewish families is nicely played by Frank Catale. Miep Gies (Suzie Thomas Wourms) another protector and friend of Kraler, renders a little gem of a performance in her scenes, Morgana Correlli as Mrs. Van Daan, and Larry Dykeman as Mr. Van Daan shine in their scenes as ‘outsiders’ who create problems for the eight Jewish residents living in a space built to accommodate four people.

The Van Daan’s teenage son Peter, nicely played by Aiden Bosworth, has several tenderly performed scenes with Anne.  One can only ache for the youngsters trying to live and grow up in such circumstances.  The comedy relief character of the frustrated and fearful dentist Mr. Dussel, if one can use the term in the context of the drama, is amusingly performed by Herb Schultz. 

The creative team led by director Layne includes Scenic and Lighting Designer J.W. Layne, who provides a perfect functional set and lighting design that allows the actors as well as the audience to appreciate the story unfolding on stage, along with the appropriate WW II costume designs created by resident Designer Derik Shopinski, Wig designs created by Mado Nunez, complete the team.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a powerful and important production that underscores the play’s core story points of being “different” – which inevitably lead to discrimination and racism – will ever become a reality here in the United States.  And the beat goes on ….

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