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The Room Upstairs
The Milwaukee Rep's "Diary of Anne Frank"

The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre's "The Diary of Anne Frank" (photo by Michael Brosilow)

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is a curious lightning rod.

Celebrated by many as an iconic testament to the human spirit, it remains required reading in many high schools. And recently, Francine Prose argues that the book is not just a compelling historical document, but a work of literary genius.

It’s also been condemned by critics, who bemoan the transformation of a real girl and her words into a sentimental icon. In 1997, Cynthia Ozick famously wrote, “The diary has been bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, sentimentalized, falsified.”

If you can believe it, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s 1956 stage adaptation has fared even worse, though it has a bevy of awards in its coffers—appropriate enough for one of the first dramatizations to deal with the horror of the Holocaust.

Today—after Shoah and other considerations of the Holocaust—the adaptation is a bit wince inducing for its sentimentality. But the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre doesn’t let that bog down the fine production of the play that opened last weekend.

Curiously, The Rep chose to stage the original 1956 version of the play, rather than Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 reworking of the script, which was written after the diary itself was republished with some of the book’s darker and sexually direct material restored. It’s clear that director KJ Sanchez has taken some cues from that rewrite. Anne’s antagonistic relationship with her mother is again prominent. And the growing, maddening despair of the group is palpable and heart-wrenching (particularly in Lee Ernst’s unflinchingly angry as Van Daan and Larry Neumann Jr.’s intractable Mr. Dussel).

Chicago actor Lauren Hirte plays Anne with great energy and intelligence. It’s an accomplished performance, particularly since Anne’s soaring optimism and spirit seems like an ironic joke in the context of the story.

What story there is, anyway. One of the greatest challenges of the play is its inertia, which is part of the point, I suppose. In a smart touch, Sanchez keeps most of the cast onstage during the play’s intermission, tidying the apartment in half light (Don Conway’s meticulous set is an asset here). We aren’t so much experiencing a story as waiting. Just as the Franks and Van Daans are waiting. If The Diary of Anne Frank speaks to us today, it’s more as a ritual than drama. We are sitting Shiva with people as they go about their lives, mourning their deaths (and that of millions of others) even as we watch the minutia of their lives. 

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