It is still hard to believe that in the middle of the 20th century the most advanced nation in Europe would have set about systematically exterminating all Jews. Germany stopped at 6 million only because its war against the Jews helped lose World War II. As survivors pass on, many do doubt that the genocide ever happened, encouraged in their skepticism by cynics for whom Holocaust denial is a natural extension of anti-Semitism. The current film Denial dramatizes one such case, in which historian David Irving was exposed as a fraud and bigot.
Anne Frank, whose private diary became one of the bestselling books of the century, is the most famous victim of the Holocaust. It is appropriate that a dramatization of that diary is being staged at the Vexler Theatre, located in the Barshop Jewish Community Center, two floors below the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio. Universalizing the story of two years spent hiding from the Nazis, the original 1955 adaptation of the diary, by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, erased the eight characters’ Jewish identity, the very reason that pushed them into hiding. Directed by Eva Laporte, the current production (when xenophobia is again rampant and lethal) makes use of Wendy Kesselman’s 1997 revision; Chanukah is celebrated, and elements that Otto Frank found discomfiting enough to expunge from his daughter’s diary, such as the onset of Anne’s menstruation and her antipathy toward her mother, are included.
An artful set design emphasizes the cramped quarters of the hideout that the Franks (Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne) share with Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan and their son Peter as well as a dentist named Dussel. Miep Gies, the buoyant Gentile who risks her life to keep them hidden and fed, visits regularly. But fear, hunger, animosity and claustrophobia exacerbate tensions within the confines of the Secret Annex.
As Anne, neophyte Jessica Salazar is the quicksilver character described in the diary. Perky, moody, and precocious, she insists: “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.” When Salazar’s Anne proclaims: “I’m going to be remarkable,” she is entirely credible. Jim Mammarella’s Otto Frank exercises his responsibilities as unofficial mayor of the Secret Annex with vigilance, forbearance and love.
“I want to go on living after my death,” Anne exclaims, and, from the opening lines to the devastating conclusion, we already know how everything ends, in Bergen-Belsen but also bookshelves throughout the world. In the play’s coda, the war is over, and Otto returns alone to the Secret Annex, broken by the loss of his entire family. The evening I attended, the audience sat in stunned silence, too shattered even to applaud.
The Diary of Anne Frank, $16-$22, 7:30pm Thu, 8pm Sat, 2:30pm Sun, The Sheldon Vexler Theatre Barshop Jewish Community Center of San Antonio, 12500 NW Military Hwy., (210) 302-6835, vexler.org
Through November 13