While most Canadians were at home napping off their Thanksgiving dinner, the Saint John Theatre Company opened their 2016-2017 Studio Series with a dress rehearsal of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. Rather pointedly, the audience were made up of immigrants and refugees (with the exception of one theatre reviewer, who does admittedly comes-from-away). All ( though again, with the exception of one reviewer) were invited through YMCA Newcomers – a program which seeks to help the recently relocated settle into and make the best of their new home .
‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ is a story that has long been established as a classic, and demands to be told, now as much as ever. It’s been more than seventy years since a young Jewish girl named Anne Frank picked up a pen and diary in an attempt to document the horrors of her family’s two-year ordeal hiding from the Nazi’s in occupied Holland. The core of its message – the fear of prejudice and persecution, still holds relevance.
The performance, in front of this audience in particular, was powerfully poignant, given the ugly anti-immigration, and often racist sentiments that plague so much of the world today.
SJTC director and cast member Stephen Tobias says of the choice to include ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and companion piece ‘East of Berlin’ in this Studio Series season, “We chose this play, very specifically, because, during our last federal election in Canada, there were a lot of people who made a fuss about not wanting to welcome people to this country. And I believe, personally, strongly, that this play is kind of an object lesson in why we should welcome people here.”
The BMO Theatre space is not large, but in this case makes a perfect stand-in for the small Secret Annex space that the cast of eight share. Made up of a single, linear set divided into several sections indicating common rooms, bedrooms, and attic, the intimacy of the space pulls the audience in naturally, with all the action happening so close you could literally reach out and touch it. The effect is to fully engage the audience in the day-to-day doldrums of hiding, the tensions of such living, and the horrors of being discovered.
Directed by Shane MacMillan, the play features a number of excellent performances from the ensemble cast. An almost unrecognizable Stephen Tobias is stoic and warm as the group’s unofficial leader, Otto Frank. Sandra Bell plays his modest and cool wife Edith Frank. Ally Buchanan plays Anne, and does an admirable job with the difficult task of bringing such a beloved and spirited character to life.
Suzanne Short is a standout as the colourful Mrs. Van Daan; offering all those subtle, small gestures that make for a great performance. Mr. Van Daan is played by Dave Barnhart, and together, the two provide some much needed levity as well as some of the play’s most touching moments.
The play relies heavily on the interaction between cast members, and the ball is not dropped by anyone. The main cast is rounded by Kennedy McGeachy as Anne’s sister Margot, Carter Scott as the young Peter Van Daan, Katie Wightman as Miep Gies, Scott Thomas as Mr. Kraler and Dwayne Keating as Mr. Dussel.
‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ runs at the BMO Theatre from October 11-15th, and October 18-22nd. Tickets can be purchased through their website saintjohntheatrecompany.com.