Oct. 28 2015 11:51 AM

‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ still powerful

When a literary work is classified as “important,” the connotation is that it is intellectually ponderous and pretentious. Riverwalk Theatre’s production of “Diary of Anne Frank” is an important work not because it is overly cerebral, but because it is an emotionally accessible look at the capacity humans have for both good and evil.

The story should be familiar to most.

In 1942 Amsterdam, Anne Frank (Sally Hecksel) is forced into hiding with her family, another family and a friend. These eight people hid for two years in secret rooms above the former work place of Otto Frank (Todd Heywood) until they are discovered near the end of the war and shipped off to concentration camps. For tunately, Anne captured the experience in her famously insightful and intimate diary.

The script for this stage production was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett in 1955, just a decade after Anne’s death. The war wounds were still fresh, but, in an age before reality television, this play gave audiences the first realistic depiction of the desperation of people literally hiding for their lives.

Two years are compacted into just over two hours, during which the squirrelly, mischievous 13-year-old blossoms into a philosophical young woman yearning for her first kiss. Hecksel brings Anne to life with such unabashed energy that it drives home the tragic loss of this life-force. This is history, so it is no spoiler to remind audiences that Anne died in a concentration camp weeks before it was liberated. Fortunately, the script spares us the grim details.

Although the work was based on Anne’s diary, it is her father, Otto, who provides constancy. This is true for the narrative structure of the play. As the only survivor from the group, his appearance bookends the play. But it is also true in terms of his quiet leadership. Through Anne’s eyes, Otto is the one who holds the group together. The role is played to perfection by Heywood. (Editor’s note: Heywood is a contributor to City Pulse.)

Whereas Heywood’s performance as Uday Hussein in last season’s “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” was a scenerychewing tour de force, in “Diary,” Heywood is calm, steady and wise. His economy of movement carries the class and grace of a middleaged businessman of the 1940s.

Tom Ferris’ set is at once both cozy and claustrophobic, as eight people are forced to politely — or not politely — circle each other constantly. The attention to detail by props crew Ray and Melody Kurtis is thorough, right down to the historically accurate red and white-checked diary.

Sixty years after its theatrical debut, the play remains an intensely compelling study of group dynamics and human intimacy. Camaraderie is tested, as when a small celebration turns hostile over the size of a piece of cake. While Anne wants to continue to believe that “people are really good at heart,” the story of her life and death continues to be reminder that not all are.

“The Diary of Anne Frank”

Riverwalk Theater 7 p.m. Thursday Oct. 29; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday Oct. 30-31; 2 p.m. Sunday Nov. 1 $15/$12 students, seniors and military Friday-Sunday; $10/$8 students, seniors and military Thursday Riverwalk Theatre 228 Museum Drive, Lansing (517) 482-5700, riverwalktheatre.com