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THEATER REVIEW

Anne Frank lives anew

A 14-year-old actress makes the most of her pivotal role in `The Diary of Anne Frank.'

March 15, 2007|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

"THE Diary of Anne Frank" has become an iconic cautionary beacon since its initial publication in 1947, through respective Pulitzer- and Oscar-winning stage and film adaptations. Yet an accomplished revival from Ventura's Rubicon Theatre resonates with particularly topical urgency, thanks to a confluence of recent news events.

In a coincidental real-life prologue to the play, newly discovered letters from patriarch Otto Frank, detailing his exhaustive, futile efforts to obtain safe passage before his family went into hiding from Nazi persecution, have just been released. A more troubling context for reviving the play is the widening popularity of Holocaust denial, exemplified by last December's international Holocaust conference in Tehran. Against this backdrop of intolerance and historical revisionism, "Diary" serves a more important mission than ever.

The drama's chronological depiction of the two-year confinement of Anne's family and four of their friends unfolds in the secret annex above Otto's factory, its claustrophobic layout meticulously detailed in Thomas S. Giamario's scenic design.

The poignant and preternaturally insightful Anne is both the play's pivotal role and its greatest casting challenge. Rather than the typical recourse to an older actress, director James O'Neil cast a wide net, and he hit pay dirt in 14-year-old Chicago native Lauren Patten. Patten, at exactly the right age and looking uncannily like photos of the real Anne, displays the accomplished stage savvy and emotional maturity to convey the full meaning and effect of every line. Particularly impressive is her assured handling of Anne's emerging sexual awareness in passages omitted from the initial published diary and incorporated by adapter Wendy Kesselman for the 1997 Broadway revival. Kesselman's version relies heavily on the 1955 Broadway script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who mined enough narrative from Anne's diary to efficiently sketch its 10 cleanly differentiated principal characters. Each is afforded at least one pivotal revelation or confrontation, and the Rubicon ensemble demonstrates thoroughly professional pedigrees in making the most of limited stage time.

As Frank's business partner and his wife, George Backman and Linda Purl are simultaneously amusing and horrifying portraits of bickering self-absorption, while Jesse Bernstein makes their shy son a credible romantic partner for Anne. Joel Polis is suitably grouchy as the dentist who becomes Anne's reluctant roommate. Karyl Lynn Burns is Anne's haunted, pessimistic mother, Alison Brie her meek, deferential sister.

Rudolph Willrich and Laurel Lyle are the good-hearted Christians risking their own lives to aid the fugitives. The key supporting performance, however, is Bruce Weitz's Otto Frank, quietly heartbreaking in his unshakable allegiance to human dignity.

Commendably, the production avoids sentimentalizing the already-charged subject matter, though it could go even further in showing the extent to which these people get on each others' nerves in the course of their ugly, cramped ordeal. Nevertheless, it plays with gripping conviction that honors Anne's wish "to go on living even after my death."

*

`The Diary of Anne Frank'

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays

Ends: April 1

Price: $26 to $49

Contact: (805) 667-2900 or www.rubicontheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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