Thursday, February 10, 2011

M&D's 'Anne Frank' is powerful theater

M&D Productions opens its 2011 season with a powerful production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which open Thursday, Feb. 10, at Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. and will be performed for three weeks Thursday through Saturday.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is a challenging show because, for obvious reasons, the story of two Jewish families hiding in a secret annex to escape the Nazis during World War II is highly sensitive material. If handled poorly a production of “Anne Frank” could veer from ham-fisted to unintentionally funny. M&D's production is neither of these things.

Jessica Biggio is quite the discovery in the title role. At just age 14 she commands the stage in ways far beyond her years. Biggio, by the nature of the role, has several monologues delivered directly to the audience and she doesn't miss a beat.

Anne is a care-free, hopeful spirit who struggles to keep her rambunctious energy in check while living with seven other people. In the span of the years living in the annex she butts head with everyone, but also matures and even finds love with Peter (Ged Owen), the son of the other family staying with them.

This is a role that touches on every emotion and Biggio handles the role with grace and poise. In the lighter moments she isn't too precocious and in the heavier moments she doesn't over play. In fact, no one in the cast goes over-the-top. There's a lot of crying in this show and few things are more awkward to watch on stage than bad fake crying, but there's none of that here.

Biggio is surrounded by a strong ensemble cast. Richard Russo is the compassionate patriarch, Christy Hikel is Anne's mother, Courtney Phelps is Anne's sister Margot, Bill Knolla is the dentist they take in, Kevin O'Neil, Suzie Laskin and Owen are the Van Daan family and Julie Lanoie and Dan Phelps are the couple that are helping them hide away.

Russo delivers a monologue in the show's epilogue that is absolutely heartbreaking. It is delivered in a way that brings across the tremendous loss and puts the concluding events of the play into all too true and tragic context.

Courtney Phelps, who has been in such productions as "Footloose" and "Godspell," is barely recognizable and reveals depths that had previously gone untapped. Hikel does a fine job trying to remain the strong mother, who struggles to connect with her daughter. There's a tender scene where mother and daughter finally share a moment of kindness.

O'Neil and Laskin are good as the bickering couple staying with the Franks. When O'Neil is caught sneaking food at night it leads to a confrontation that brings to the fore tensions that had long been simmering.

Knolla as the gruff dentist who becomes Anne's roommate provides some needed comic relief.

The show isn't a 90-minute downer. There are moments of humor and hope. A Hanukkah scene in which Anne manages to make presents for everyone is warm and touching. It is a just about perfect scene.

The ensemble has a beautiful space to play in — an impressively designed recreation of the annex by set designer Deborah Jasien. There are two rooms as well as an attic and director Dennis O'Neil uses the space well with often things happening in both rooms as well as the attic. The production would be worth seeing multiple times just to focus attentions on different aspect of the action.

Victoria Miller does fine work lighting the set and, when necessary, creates an appropriately somber mood.

"The Diary of Anne Frank" puts a face on the Holocaust atrocities. Numbers and statistics are often hard to comprehend. With this production you get to intimately know these eight people and the sorrow of their loss is palpable. M&D honors their names.

For more information or for tickets call Your Theatre at 662-7591.

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