An Intimate ‘Anne Frank’ at Olney

Productions of “The Diary of Anne Frank” rise and fall with the actress portraying the title role.

That’s a testament to the importance of the role, but it’s not all that’s important about the play, which was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, based on the diary of the vibrant, word-gifted teenaged Jewish girl who hid with her family and friends in a annex in Amsterdam after the Nazi invasion. (In late 1944, they were discovered and transported to extermination and concentration camps.)

In Olney Theatre Center’s harrowingly compact Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, the play, running through Oct. 23, has a remarkable young actress in the title role. Carolyn Faye Kramer — the Boston-raised performer who started her career playing Anne’s sister Margot in Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre production in 2007 — seems almost intimately connected to the role and the persona.

“Ever since I was a little girl, the story has been close to my heart,” the 29-year-old Kramer said in a telephone interview. “I had a Jewish upbringing in Boston. The family was Russian and Ukrainian, and there was an awareness of the Holocaust.

“The thing that really struck me right away, and that you have to get across, is how alive she was. She was just a young girl, but so smart, so energetic, so curious and talented. And a little self-centered at first, but she had this ambition, this sense of ambition, of her place in the future world. She had the talent to be a fine, terrific writer, she had a gift, and she imagined herself as that — a famous, known writer, her work out there in the world. She saw herself as that person, and that’s part of what’s so heartbreaking.”

Kramer is the key onstage. She’s never far away even when she disappears for a moment here, a moment there. She is something of a catalyst with her high energy, her questions, her longing for experience in a place where there is barely an inch of privacy, sharing a room, a space, with her sister Margot, then the sometimes irascible Mr. Dussel. The annex is crowded; there is the Frank family — father Otto, mother Edith, and Margot and Anne — as well as the van Daans, the haughty wife with her mink coat and sometimes embittered husband, as well as their son Peter, the object of Anne’s affections and romantic curiosity.

Kramer doesn’t sugarcoat Anne as some sort of saintly, blemishless figure. She’s irritating, rambunctious, often rude, demanding and even exhausting, but she’s a learner as well as a yearner. Small and youthful, her changes through time come entirely through her emotions, the way she begins to move more cautiously, her growing understanding of their shared predicament. In spite of the evidence of danger and possible disaster, and the crushing life they lead, she has an honest hope.

Kramer is surrounded by vibrant personalities — so much so that the annex can barely hold them — with a fine cast to play them, including Washington performers like Paul Morella, who, as Otto Frank, maintains the peace not like a stern judge but by dignified example and patience, and Brigid Cleary, who displays some powerful emotions as Edith Frank in a tense, friction-filled relationship with Anne. Kimberly Schraf brings a direct, honest warmth to the role of Miep Gies, the steadfast benefactor of the people she’s hiding; Dani Stoller takes Margot out of her stoic shell with an affecting quietude; and Susan Rome and Eric Hissom provide dramatic spark as the van Daans.

A crucial factor in the play is the set itself, which is structured in such a way, on the edges, outward and above, that you feel closer than you perhaps should as an audience member. In the end, you are bearing witness, no more so than when Otto Frank, the lone survivor, recites in piercing, steady monotone the fate of the residents of the annex.

In the bio on her website, Kramer, who in photos can go from whimsical and fresh to nerdy or luminous, describes herself as “actress, artist, Ninja,” the latter meaning that she has a first-degree black belt in kung fu. She also offers that she is capable of freestyle rapping and performs hip hop/pop-locking and contact improv as well as basic guitar and does yoga, swimming, field hockey, headstands and cartwheels. Her accents in the service of theater include British (RP and Cockney), Irish (Dublin and Belfast), Romanian, Russian, French, American Southern, New York and Boston.

Kramer makes you feel that Anne — who wrote that “In spite of everything, I think that people are really good at heart” and who died only days before the liberation of her camp — was likewise full of aspirations and possibilities, of similar variety, kinds and riches.

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