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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New ‘Anne Frank’ just heartbreaking

The story of Anne Frank is so familiar, so often told, how can it still have the capacity to be so profoundly moving?

Well, here are a couple of ways.

First, it can reveal new depths to Anne’s young and startling soul, using previously unknown parts of her diary. Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 adaptation of the 1955 play by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett incorporates passages from Frank’s diary that her father had expunged from previous published editions. These passages deal with her unhappy relationship with her mother, her awakening sexuality and her feelings about being a Jew.

Second, it can be performed in a sensitive, powerful, unsentimental production with close attention to detail and with an exceptionally strong ensemble cast. This Marianne McLaughlin-directed production on the Spokane Civic’s Main Stage is easily the best and most emotionally wrenching version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” that I have seen. It manages to be endearing and heartbreaking at the same time. Mostly, in the end, heartbreaking.

Credit must be paid first and foremost to Jessi Little, a Hayden Lake teen who not only portrays Anne Frank, but embodies her. Unlike other, older Anne Franks I’ve seen on stage, Little does not have to pretend to be 13. She is 13. This frees her and McLaughlin to concentrate on portraying Frank in a natural and unaffected manner – as a genuine, lovable, often exasperating middle-school bundle of moods and enthusiasms.

Little’s performance rings true as she rapturously models Mrs. Van Daan’s fur coat, twirling like a Hollywood star. When she awkwardly and impulsively plants a kiss on young Peter in the attic, she conjures up those tingling feelings of young love. She even looks like Anne Frank.

Yet she is by no means the only acting star of this group. McLaughlin has assembled the best acting ensemble of the season, with an entire Amsterdam annex full of strong, natural performances. Every performer has their quiet and powerful moments; none of them has a hammy or “stagey” moment. To me, that would have been fatal in a show that, above all, must be about the story, not about scenery- chewing.

Some of the best moments come from Denise Sutton-Utter as Anne’s mother, Michael Nelson as her father and Robert L. Wamsley and Jean Hardie as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan. I was especially impressed with Dana Blasingame as Miep, who manages to make the one character who borders on sainthood (she is the Franks’ protector and provider) into a complex character full of fears and uncertainties, however well masked.

This is one show immeasurably improved by fine stagecraft, especially by an effective use of sound by sound designer Dan Moses Schrieir. The theater is filled at various times with police sirens, air-raid sirens, barking dogs and the thunder of airplanes. These sounds are rendered in stereo – we hear sirens approaching, passing and then receding. The cello music, composed by Becky Moonitz, is brilliant and perfectly suited to the moods of the play.

The set design by Nik Adams is stunning – an old weathered wooden storeroom, converted into an entire tight universe for eight people. Adams manages a true feat – he gives us a wide-open view of claustrophobia.

The period costumes by Susan Berger and Jan Wanless display a perfect attention to telling detail – the plaid skirts, the ‘40s sweaters and the glamorous red shoes that brighten Anne’s world.

And the story? For the first act, we can allow ourselves to exercise denial and enjoy Anne’s high spirits and precocious personality. In the second act, that becomes impossible. We all know what’s coming.

This version of the play has a tougher perspective than the 1955 version. It is not as intent on showing Anne’s inspirational optimism and her enduring spirit. That’s still there, but so is a cold-eyed view of their reality.

They are hunted and hated by bad people. Sometimes, the bad people win.

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