Miep Gies, the last surviving participant in the dramatic episode of war recounted in Anne Frank's famous diary, passed away in the Netherlands on Jan. 11. She was 100 years old. That Gies had been alive all these years probably surprised many. Nevertheless, she'll always be remembered as the clerk in Otto Frank's spice business, who helped hide and sustain her Jewish employer and his family from 1942 to 1944 while occupying German troops roamed the streets of Amsterdam.
With Gies' recent passing, Nashville Children's Theatre's production The Diary of Anne Frank is particularly timely. Director Scot Copeland adapted Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich's script into a shorter version for younger theatergoers.
Copeland trims the play by about half its usual running time, yet the results signal an exceptionally deft achievement. Much of the sorrow, tension and inspiration found in the full-length work is here, playing out seamlessly in about 70 minutes. It provides plenty of time to expose youngsters to the melancholy World War II backdrop, the Nazi menace, the Franks' desperate situation and, ultimately, the human triumph that can be found in the teenage Anne's sensitive diary entries. (The production, recommended for ages 9 and up, clearly should be the spark for further discussion of related historic events.)
Designer Erica Edmonson's stark, grayish set is simple yet effective, re-creating the living quarters at 263 Prinsengracht where the Franks, their friends the Van Daans (real name: van Pels) and dentist Dr. Dussel (real name: Pfeffer) lived in secrecy for two years. Eight Jews in fear of capture, they are forced to maintain silence and curtail all normal activity during the daytime in order to avoid detection by anyone, Nazi or otherwise.
Haunting music bookends the show, and a rear-screen PowerPoint presentation offers intermittent historical perspective via archival photos. Otherwise, the story unfolds graciously in the hands of a superior cast led by Tia Shearer, who captures Anne's youthful simplicity, humor, rebellious spirit and adolescent concerns, while subtly conveying her character's maturation from ages 13 to 15.
Bobby Wyckoff is strong as Anne's gentle and thoughtful father, Otto Frank, who masterminds the hideout plan and maintains the group's sanity during trying times, especially when emotional and physical frustration threaten to create a hostile atmosphere in the crowded temporary residence. Ironically, Otto Frank was the only one of the group to survive after the ordeal, and much of his postwar efforts involved the publication of his daughter's diary.
Samuel Whited and Holly Wooten give commendable performances as the troubled Van Daans, and as their son, Peter Vann engages in warmly shared youthful moments with Shearer (though the development of that relationship is necessarily muted due to the director's editorial cuts).
Everyone else shines under Copeland's supervision, including Rona Carter, Jamie Farmer-Oneida, Henry Haggard and Evelyn Blythe, who has the relatively brief but critical role of Miep, the courageous helper from the outside world bringing supplies and news of the war's progress.
Anne Frank is a classic dramatic work, of course, produced often in live theater and celebrated in a well-known 1959 feature film. Yet even in Copeland's distilled format, it conveys a potent tale of palpable sadness, leavened by the hopeful yearnings of an iconic young lady whose message of belief in human goodness has long outlasted the evils of one of history's most horrendous chapters.