'The Diary of Anne Frank' proves powerful despite production with mixed results

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- There are commendable qualities to Andrews Living Arts Studio’s production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which will include two more performances – today at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday.

The last performance will take place roughly 24 hours before the Jewish holiday of Passover – a time Jews celebrate their freedom from bondage in Egypt.

The characters in the play, based on the journal entries of a 13-year-old Jewish girl who existed, have anything but freedom as they must restrict their movement and make sure they don’t speak too loud; the Nazis, at the time of the play, are looking for Jews, rounding them up and hauling them to concentration camps. Any voice heard or movement detected could spell doom for the real-life character Anne Frank and those hiding with her in the attic of her father’s office in Amsterdam.

In the extremely intimate Andrews Living Arts Studio theater in Ft. Lauderdale, the production offers a visceral experience as we watch the talented performers offer mostly powerful portrayals infused with palpable tension. As you watch them, they convince you they’re on edge to the point that any sound will make them gasp in horror – or faint.

But this production’s quality suffers for a couple reasons, mainly because the “Diary” of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is hardly prominent.

Robert D. Nation, who directed the production, designed the set and served as sound engineer, has created a wide, realistic playing space with enough detail while still suggesting a cramped attic atop Otto Frank’s business. The set’s dark colors symbolize the bleak situation in which the Franks and Van Daans find themselves.

 A shortcoming that lessens the production’s power is that Anne reads from her diary (sometimes) in an area that’s offstage and not easily visible to many audience members. It was also hard to hear Anne (Skylar Scorca) speak if you weren’t sitting way off to the left. When Scorca doesn’t appear in that spot to read the diary, we merely hear a recording of a girl, which is also hard to hear if you’re not seated in the right spot. It’s puzzling why the actress wouldn’t always read from the diary live.

Obviously a play in which Anne simply reads her diary with no character interaction or conflict would amount to solely lifting the source material from the page. But even in an adaptation – and Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s play is faithful – the diary needs to be a central part of the production. It’s in the diary, not just the dialogue, that we get the essence of the enthusiastic, upbeat, optimistic teenage girl with plans for the future who believes in the inherent goodness of others despite the circumstances. Sure, the stage is crowded, but there was space for Scorca to sit or stand in a spot that offered a full view for the audience. A spotlight could’ve been trained on her, enabling us to hear and see her voice and facial expressions.

Part of Andrews Living Arts Studio’s mission is to provide “the opportunities for young people to share the stage with experienced professionals,” according to the program.

Scorca is a 15-year-old who’s a member of the Thespian Honor Society at The Sagemont School. This promising young thespian imbues Anne with an energy that borders on hyper and she makes it clear that Anne is an enthusiastic girl who talks a lot. Scorca also nails the character’s accent. She needs, however, to convey a more-dreamy, romantic, bubbly enthusiasm about plans for her future (Anne really believed she would survive) -- especially in lines such as when Anne asks her boyfriend and former classmate Peter whether he’s ever kissed a girl. Acting somewhat coquettish might do the trick.

There’s at least one scene during which Anne and Peter (Ricardo Alzate in a powerful, convincing performance) share a scene in which they freely talk to one another as friends in a comforting manner that’s convincing. The build-up to this moment works largely due to the work of Alzate, who’s possibly in his late teens and has been acting since age 8. Alzate’s Peter is filled with knots of tension and awkwardness. The young actor convincingly broods, stuffs his hands in his pocket and is like a simmering kettle ready to explode – and explode he does without overacting – when someone speaks unfavorably of his cat, for example. Bitterness and frustration that sound authentic emanate from Alzate’s voice when Peter is in such a state.

Scorca and Alzate are blessed to work with talented adult actors who give multi-faceted performances that at times contains nuance.

It’s painful to watch an actor referred to only as “Jefferson” in the program as Otto Frank when the play begins. Some time has passed since his family was killed in the Holocaust. Jefferson, his hands shaking noticeably and pain etched in his face, looks like a senior citizen with aches all over as he slowly, seemingly laboriously moves and caresses his daughter’s diary. He inhales as he positions it close to his face, as though to breath in the memory of Anne in order to put him at peace.

During subsequent scenes, Jefferson’s Otto radiates compassion and the sense of a person keeping the peace as nerves grip the other characters. He also conveys a strong will to survive. Jefferson invests his performance with nuance, but at times he tries too hard to do so, speaking in a stage whisper that’s barely audible. While Andrews Living Arts Studio’s intimate space allows for such a tone, the audience must hear every word.

Credit goes to director Nation for creating some touching and striking stage pictures, such as when Otto stands by his wife, gently caressing her shoulder as nerves take control of her. As his wife, Edith Frank, a tension-filled Elizabeth Anne Garrard clearly communicates the character’s pain after she learns her daughter feels more comfortable talking with her father. Anne, meanwhile, feels her parents favor her older sister, Margot (a calming, obedient and quiet Amanda Gonzalez).

Garrard and Jaqueline Misholy, who portrays Mrs. Van Daan, have some of the most powerful moments in the production, during incidents of intense emotion. Misholy’s Mrs. Van Daan is so protective of and emotional about her fur coat you’d think her husband is squandering away her life savings after he takes it from her with the thought to sell it.

Speaking of Mr. Van Daan, Bruce Greco’s face and voice drips sarcasm, disgust and cynicism as Peter’s father, who is, to put it lightly, hard to get along with and not exactly a model father.

Another irritable character is Mr. Dussel, who’s taken in by the Franks and Van Daans after it’s revealed he has nowhere else to hide. William Shuman has a grouchy countenance and argumentative demeanor as the senior citizen who cannot stand rooming with Anne.

Rounding out the cast are an understanding Nadia Folic as Miep, Mr. Frank’s secretary who helps protect the Franks and Van Daans in their hiding place and a beneficent, eager-to-please Andrew Jeffrey Brown as Mr. Kraler, a businessman who risks his life to help others.

“The Diary of Anne Frank,” as a play, could be unbearably depressing, but authors Hackett and Goodrich have written humor and happy moments into the adaptation to make it bearable. They do so without making light of the grave situation in which the families find themselves.

The actors deliver multi-faceted performances, and they shine when these more upbeat scenes play out. You can’t help but feel for them and hope they make it out alive, after you’ve witnessed their suffering and zest for life.

The costumes, which were provided by Behind-The-Scenes Costumes, Props and Theatrical Supplies in Ft. Lauderdale, help to define character. Anne, for example, is clad in a flowery, colorful outfit, matching her personality. Black outfits worn by others, like the dark walls, help reinforce the dark situation with which these people are faced.

We can relate to “The Diary of Anne Frank” on several levels. Obviously, in today’s frightfully unpredictable world, with terrorist groups such as ISIS on the loose, it’s easy to understand the unease these characters are feeling, although their situation is far more precarious than what we’re facing in today’s world.

The play also deals with generational differences when it comes to, for example, entering into relationships. You can’t help but wonder what the older folks in the play would think about the Internet and the myriad of dating websites that, at the click of a button, match one person’s personality to another’s. There are also issues of parent-child relationships and getting along with people you may not like, all relevant in today’s world. And then there's Mrs. Van Daan, who prizes material possessions. She's a character who can make us contemplate how lucky we are for simply being alive and healthy.

Perhaps most importantly, “The Diary of Anne Frank” shows the importance of the written word’s survival. Holocaust survivors are aging and dying at a high rate and it’s documents such as Anne Frank’s diary that will help ensure their stories live on for generations to come…and that people, indeed, never forget.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “The Diary of Anne Frank”

WHEN: 2 p.m. today and 8 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Andrews Living Arts Studio, 23 N.W. 5th St., Ft. Lauderdale.

HOW MUCH: $30 general admission, $25 for seniors and $10 for students with ID. Call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.andrewslivingarts.org. For discounts for groups of 10 or more, call (954) 874-5084.