A 'Diary' of the human spirit

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By Doug Deuchler

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The Performing Arts Department of Oak Park & River Forest High School has mounted an impressive production of The Diary of Anne Frank in the Studio Theater. Two performances remain this weekend at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 21, and Sat., Oct. 22. Though the material is undoubtedly already familiar to lots of us and we know teenage Anne's life did not end happily, this classic story of courage, hope, and the triumph of the human spirit still resonates. 

Anne's remarkable diary chronicles the daily struggle of eight Jewish people hiding in several cramped attic rooms of an office building during the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands. The time period depicted is 1942-1944, between Anne's 13th and 15th birthdays. This was during the Holocaust in World War II, one of the darkest periods of human history.

Director Michelle Bayer, the performing arts chair, has created a vigorous, touching production, with assistance from co-director Natalie Kozelka.

Anne's diary was recovered when her father, the sole survivor of his family, returned to the hidden upper rooms after he was released from a concentration camp at the end of World War II. Otto Frank recognized the importance of the journal and had it posthumously published. It remains one of the largest selling books of all time. Subsequent generations of school children continue to read Anne's words. 

Most of the play is a flashback to the two years of hiding in the crowded secret rooms above an office building. There is one intermission.

The group of eight — the Frank family of four, another family of three, and an extra man the group agreed to hide with them — are assisted by two generous Dutch gentiles. Miep (Maggie Perisho) bravely smuggles in as much food as possible, using just a few ration books, as well as library books and other supplies. Mr. Kraler (Ethan Gilbert) had been a business associate of Otto Frank. He took over the business when Jews were no longer able to own such enterprises.

During the day, total silence was mandatory. The refugees could not betray themselves to the workers below them in the office building. No noise could be made, not even the flushing of the toilet, until after 6 p.m. Their very lives depended on not being discovered. At night, frustration in the cramped pressure cooker often erupts, pent-up anxiety flares and accusations get tossed around.

Stephanie Guralnick, as Anne, plays a passionate, complex young woman who displays a wide range of moods. Brimming with life and enthusiasm, Anne is someone destined for great things, if only she gets the chance to live.

Thomas Weinheimer brings a quiet dignity to the role of Anne's beloved father, Otto. He's both compassionate and practical. 

Edith Frank, Anne's mother, is played by Miranda Montgomery. The frustrated nurturer must swallow her pride and conceal her worry when Anne pushes her away.

Anne's self-effacing, quiet older sister Margot, is portrayed by Mariama Sidime. The actress makes this far more than a throw-away sidekick role. Her scenes touch the heart. 

The Van Daan's teenage son Peter (Oskar Westbridge) grows from awkward adolescence to more focused maturity, becoming a confidant for Anne. 

Early in the production, the cast and crew visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie to learn more about the horrific period of the European Occupation and the "Final Solution" of the Nazis.

This deeply engaging production is a tribute to Anne, her family, and the millions of others who lost their lives in the Nazi death camps. It's well-performed by a solid student ensemble. 

Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for seniors and students. Performances are 7 p.m., Friday, Oct. 21, and Sat., Oct. 22.

Doug Deuchler

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