Rhett Guter (left) as Peter van Daan and Mariko Nakasone as Anne Frank in the Utah Shakespearean Festival's 2010 production of The Diary of Anne Frank. (Photo by Karl Hugh. Copyright Utah Shakespearean Festival 2010).

CEDAR CITY – Utah Shakespearean Festival’s preview of The Diary of Anne Frank, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, directed by James Edmondson, brought alive the tale of a young girl in hiding during the Holocaust, and the tribulations that residing in such close quarters, would bring upon eight people who are living each day in fear for their lives.As a child my grandmother told me I should read The Diary of Anne Frank and that I should know what this girl had gone through. So when I was 12, maybe 13, I borrowed the book from the library. I made it about halfway through, but for me, I suppose the book was a little too close for comfort. I really identified with Anne in so many ways. My mother and I never got along and I feared we never would. I just didn’t understand her, and she didn’t know me, she didn’t even try to. I gave up on the book and have regretted it ever since.

Attending last night’s production with my own, almost-10-year-old daughter, was quite an experience. The set was fabulous and as we were walking down the aisle to our second row seats, she already had a multitude of questions, “Why are there all those boxes up on the stage Mom? Is that what houses looked like back then? Why is that sound coming from the speakers? Is it supposed to be raining?” The designers did a great job setting the scene and the stage gave a definite feeling of a home of the simplest means, cut off from the rest of the world, yet in the middle of everything. The skylights in the attic above offered a feeling of longing for the outside world. And the stairs at the front of the stage created a feeling of uncertainty as to what was yet to come.

I had explained to my daughter before we left for the play that night, the story we were going to was a true, first-hand account, of a girl and her family who were hiding from Hitler’s men during WWII. I told her it was a sad tale, but I didn’t go into it much deeper because I wanted her to have her own experience.

The play that was originally written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, was literally taken from the young girl’s personal diary in 1956, and told with a brutal honesty that only the experience of looking through the eyes of a child could render. When Anne (Mariko Nakasone) went skipping across the stage, wide eyed and smiling, excited about the new adventure they were going to have with the Van Daans, it was difficult not to believe her, even if you did know better. The play was surprisingly light-hearted in contrast to the serious nature of the discussions that took place over the, more than year-and-a-half’s time the families remained concealed in the secret attic above her father’s work.

Living in an era that evoked so much terror, among so many, Anne’s incredibly naïve perspective is at first refreshing but later you can see how it takes its toll on those around her old enough to comprehend the enormity of the precarious position all Jews were in. I don’t know if her spirit broke but about two thirds of the way through the play, somewhere around when the nightmares began, you could see something inside of her had changed.

My daughter, who had poked fun at me a few times during the play for tearing up, was slowly beginning to realize the tremendous danger these families were in. As the shriek of the whistle from the trains carrying Jews off to death camps screamed through the room, I could feel her body tense up beside me in empathy for those traveling to their doom. The sound engineering (Barry G. Funderburg) was very well executed and during those intense moments, I have to admit, I found myself clenched up and white knuckled as well.

There was another element however that I have to admit was surprising. One I am not sure was intended, but nevertheless truly affected me.  When the Menorah was lit to celebrate Hanukah the smell of the matches used to light the Shammash (the servant candle in the center that is used to light the other candles) were released and the sulfur attacked my senses causing me to, not only, feel the emotions of the play, but smell and taste them as well.

This experience was repeated later as Mrs. Van Daan served her kale and potato stew to the hunger stricken captives. I have to admit, it really added to the encounter for me. I am almost positive the smell couldn’t have made it further than a couple of rows behind us, which is a shame, because it really enabled my ability to suspend disbelief and immerse myself into Anneliese’s world.

Intermission was a bit confusing for many people in the audience, because the actors remained on stage doing their day to day tasks quietly as the house lights rose above us signaling it was time for a break. As the lights brightened many stood to file out of the theater, but then noticed all of the actors still onstage. Out of respect, almost everyone sat back down around me. Honestly, I was one of those looking around at the people beside me with a confused look on my face wondering what to do, but after a minute or two, people started to slowly leave their seats. After another minute or two, my daughter and I did as well.

The hallways were buzzing with familiar faces and I ran into a friend while waiting for my daughter. We started talking about the unusual break from the norm at intermission and the obvious confusion that ripped through the audience during the first several minutes. He said he and his wife were considering that just moments before. They had come to the conclusion that it would be very strange for stage hands to be on the set messing with stuff that was in a secret space and wasn’t supposed to exist. Another exquisite execution if you ask me.

A light bulb went off. It would be quite odd for anyone else to be in that space. That’s probably why the silent infiltration of the Nazi soldiers that surrounded the Franks (Tim Casto and Corliss Preston), the Van Daan’s (Mark Corkins and Liisa Ivary) and Mr. Dussel (Daniel R. Hill), (the dentist who joined them during their stay), in their kitchen was so shocking, even to those of us who already knew how the story ends. Resisting the urge to yell out “Look behind you,” was exceptionally difficult and even my daughter, who up to this point kept looking at me in case I had tears, began to well up herself.

The audience was reverent as they piled out of the theater doors that night, and the usual buzz in the halls was, on that particular occasion, diminished to a faint whisper. It was almost as if the enormity of the Holocaust was in our arms and there was nothing we could do about it.  Overall, The Diary of Anne Frank offered an entertaining, yet sobering review, of a time fraught with unspeakable horror, in a not so distant part of our past world history.

The Utah Shakespearean Festival’s production of The Diary of Anne Frank plays at 2 PM or 7:30 PM on select dates through October 23 in the Randall L. Jones Theatre (300 W. Center Street, Cedar City) on the campus of Southern Utah University.  Tickets are $25-59.  For details, visit www.bard.org.