What makes Barter Theatre's acclaimed new version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" so riveting, says director Richard Rose, is that Anne speaks the diary entries herself as monologues to the audience rather than relying on a prerecorded voice over, as in the Broadway original.
"She connects with an audience in a way that wasn't evident before," says Rose, who is also producing artistic director of the Virginia-based Barter Theatre, the country's oldest year-round repertory company. "It brings an engaging immediacy, as though it were contemporary rather than historical. I haven't seen another production do that."
Barter will bring its production of "Anne Frank" to Wichita's Orpheum for one performance this week as part of a national tour. Rose says he has made two other significant changes of tone to freshen up the classic play.
"We allow the humor of Anne's observations to come through because we don't want it to be depressing, despite the seriousness of the story," Rose says. "And I wanted Anne to be a real girl, not some saint on a pedestal. She was a typical young teen. She could be snotty. She could be bratty. Audiences will identify with her as a child like others they know, not just a historical figure."
Rose, a Wisconsin native, is only the third person to be in charge of Barter Theatre since it was founded in 1933 at the height of the Depression. The name came about because actors and playwrights accepted food from cash-strapped local farmers for tickets. Writers like Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder took Virginia hams —"ham for 'Hamlet' " became a tongue-in-cheek motto — but vegetarian George Bernard Shaw bartered rights to his plays for spinach.
Now the oldest year-round rep company in America as well as second largest, playing to 165,000 people last year, Barter has become famous for giving starts to such performers as Gregory Peck, Patricia Neal, Ernest Borgnine, Frances Fisher and Kevin Spacey.
Kelly Klein, who plays young Anne, says at first she was a little overwhelmed at the decision for her to perform the diary entries rather than prerecord them, because there was just so much material.
"But it really breathes life into those words for an audience. The reaction is so much better. They really connect with her, and that feels really great," says Klein, who grew up in Los Angeles and has been performing with Barter only since January. She previously was on TV in "Gilmore Girls" and in the movie "Taking Woodstock."
Klein, 25, says playing a 13-year-old is easy in one respect because she readily identifies with her thoughts and emotions.
"I was a lot like Anne when I was 13," says Klein, who is half Jewish. "I remember being that age. I relate to her feeling restless and wondering what growing up would be like — changes in her body, new desires, feelings for a boy for the first time. I even started a diary of my own after we were assigned to read her book in school. She was such a good writer that it inspired me to go into creative writing."
Klein says her biggest challenge is leaving the emotional roller-coaster of Anne's story behind after she leaves the theater.
"Anne's emotions are all over the place, sometimes changing very quickly. In one scene, for instance, I am crying from a nightmare, and the very next, I'm laughing during Hanukkah," she says. "I use my own emotions to show Anne's emotions, and they get so wrapped up together that it can be hard to leave that behind after a performance. I generally have to take a nap and recharge."
Rose says this is the first "Anne Frank" Barter has mounted in the nearly 20 years he's been there. This revival, launched in January in the home theater at Abingdon and taken on the road this fall, turned out to be timely. Miep Gies, the heroic Dutch woman who helped Anne and her family hide from the Nazis for two years in a tiny attic, died this year. There are also a couple of new books about Anne, and David Mamet is scripting a movie about her for Disney.
"But those are merely coincidental to our choosing to do it," Rose says. "I've felt for a long time that it would be a powerful reminder in an era when human rights are being trampled on all over the world. I felt it would be a pertinent story to resurrect, particularly for younger audiences whose teachers have neglected history in the classroom because they have been pressed by 'No Child Left Behind' to increase test scores in math and reading at all costs," he says. "I felt this would be relevant and revelatory for a new generation."
If you go
'the diary of anne frank'
What: National touring production from Barter Theatre of Virginia
Where: Orpheum Theatre, 200 N. Broadway
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday