Twenty years before Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel could even speak about his experiences, let alone write about them, and decades before “Schindler’s List” would enter popular culture, the world at large first put a face on the Jewish Holocaust through “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The book, play and film moved millions despite overdoses of reverence and optimism, qualities perhaps needed for a world still recovering from the brutal horrors of World War II. Wendy Kesselman’s 1996 adaptation, however, manages to restore such realism to the original Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett play that at least one audience member nearby—who would later reveal that she was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor—was visibly agitated. “Anne is so annoying,” she said, referring to high school student Claire Elizabeth’s remarkable stage debut in the title role. “The whole family seems so irritating and petty.” To say the least, these uncanny incarnations of the characters hiding in an Amsterdam attic are flesh and blood and we learn in no uncertain terms of their faults from portions of the diary that were unpublished. Even Anne emerges as a young girl obsessed with her image and sexual fantasies—one even of a lesbian variety—and her love interest Peter, as portrayed by high schooler and Steppenwolf newcomer Mark Buenning, as a bumbling dork. By the time the two families face their fate, which is staged here by director and ensemble member Tina Landau in a remarkably unsettling yet subtle manner that I won’t spoil, knowing them warts and all as we do makes what happens all the more powerful and poignant. Yasen Payankov as Otto Frank, the sole attic survivor who ended up at Auschwitz, addresses the audience as to what exactly happened to whom and when, which is a far more satisfying ending than the original that even the lady who was so annoyed at first found, in the long run, unbearably moving. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Diary of Anne Frank” runs at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, through June 10. $20-$60.