A Century of Suffering

Revisiting the AIDS crisis with Angels in America; remembering Anne Frank as a universal optimist

The play, which debuted to immense acclaim on Broadway in 1955, is an elegant and beautifully written adaptation of the diary, but it was written for an American audience that was still reeling from the Holocaust. The nation hardly comprehended what had occurred (people still barely understood Judaism, which explains the play's weird sequence where Jews explain Hanukkah to one another), and could not stomach the death camps. Anne Frank's diary, which ended before her awful, wasting death at Bergen-Belsen, makes the Holocaust palatable.

In fact, the Park Square production feels as though it were set in the Fifties, focusing on Anne's conflict with her mother. Anne (the perky Joanna Lawler) clomps around the tiny set, declaring that she's a modern girl and has big dreams. Her mother (the subdued Donna Porfiri) frets and does the dishes, while Anne's father (the stoic Stephen D'Ambrose) insists that his daughter is just going through a phase. Zipping from one meaningful beat to the next, the cast of the Park Square Theatre inhabit their marvelous set as though this were a sitcom, albeit one with horrifying undertones. Were this not the Holocaust, and were the ending not tragic, this could be an episode of Father (Frank) Knows Best.

Father knows best: Anne Frank (Joanna Lawler) and her dad (Stephen D'Ambrose) in a Park Square Theatre production
Father knows best: Anne Frank (Joanna Lawler) and her dad (Stephen D'Ambrose) in a Park Square Theatre production

The play ends with Anne's shallow optimism, quoting her famous "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." It is hard to imagine that Anne would have repeated those sentiments while spitting up blood in the death camps, but it is a sentiment that the United States very badly needed to hear. How different a summary this is than Kushner's, voiced by Roy Cohn to a Mormon assistant. "The world will wipe its dirty hands all over you," he says. Ugly words, yes; but in the world that murdered Anne Frank, they ring appallingly true.

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