Lucy DeVito, daughter of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, to star in "The Diary of Anne Frank," opening Wednesday at Seattle's Intiman Theatre.
It is the kind of role that can bring big rewards but also perils.
The role: Anne Frank in the “The Diary of Anne Frank,” at Intiman Theatre. And the actress at hand, marveling over the pretty design a Seattle barista has swirled into her latte, is the sweetly charming but very focused Lucy DeVito. One requirement of an adult playing Frank, the renowned Dutch Jewish diarist who hid in an Amsterdam attic with her family to evade the Nazis, has already been met by the 25-year-old DeVito.
The New York-based performer could visually pass for a pubescent girl of 13 — Anne’s age when she went into hiding in 1942. Just 4-foot-11, with chocolate-drop eyes and a girlish voice, DeVito confides, “I come from a long line of shorties.”
You might recognize some of them: Danny DeVito, a famed Hollywood actor-producer-director, is Lucy’s dad. Her mother, Rhea Perlman, also dark-featured and petite, was a former co-star of the TV sitcom “Cheers.” (The whole clan, including Lucy’s younger brother and sister, will be cheering her on at the show’s official opening Wednesday night.)
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Lucy, half-Jewish on her mother’s side, is familiar with the religious holidays the Frank family tries to quietly celebrate in the attic hideaway known as “the annex,” during the play.
“We’re not religious, but we’ve always done Passover and Hanukkah,” Devito says.
But there’s much more to embodying one of the Holocaust’s most iconic, beloved and still-newsworthy figures. And DeVito, a Brown University acting grad, is taking her first starring gig very seriously.
“I auditioned for this in New York, and I really wanted it. It’s an amazing role for any actor, so deep and challenging. And Anne Frank was such an amazing person, I feel honored to portray her.”
Back to the original script
Directed by Sari Ketter, with a cast that includes Seattle’s Amy Thone, Michael Winters and Connor Toms, the season-opening Intiman show places DeVito in the company of many young women responsible for embodying Anne in hiding — as envisioned in this Pulitzer Prize-honored, 1955 Broadway drama by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
The first was Susan Strasberg, who starred in the play’s Broadway debut with the blessing of Anne’s father, Otto — the sole survivor of the Holocaust in the immediate Frank family, and devoted guardian and disseminator of his daughter’s diary.
More recently, film star Natalie Portman headlined in a new adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank” in which playwright Wendy Kesselman added material Otto deleted from the diary’s initial publication — including references to Anne’s budding sexuality and conflicts with her mother.
Kesselman also added a graphic coda about the Nazi extermination of 6 million European Jews. (After Nazis raided the annex in 1945, Anne died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp).
The revised script received mixed reviews; Village Theatre mounted it locally in 2000. For the Intiman run, artistic director Bartlett Sher chose to use the original 1955 text, which he finds theatrically superior.
But Kesselman’s adaptation stirred up a controversy that lingers. No one can deny that Anne’s candid, insightful journal, translated into more than 50 languages, personalized the Holocaust for millions of young readers.
Yet novelist Cynthia Ozick, among others, have protested what they consider the play’s overly hopeful tone, and the downplaying of Anne’s fears and sense of Jewishness.
In a 1997 New Yorker essay, Ozick charged the diary had been “infantilized, Americanized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitchified,” and the play (and its glossy 1957 movie version) favored “cheap sentimentality at the expense of a great catastrophe.”
Despite such tough criticism, the play is still widely produced in both versions.
Last month, Roosevelt High School students performed “And Then They Came for Me: Remembering the World of Anne Frank,” a multimedia play by James Still. In attendance was Holocaust survivor and author Eva Schloss, a childhood friend of Anne’s, who became Otto Frank’s stepdaughter with his postwar marriage to her mother.
A friend of Anne’s
For her own portrait of Anne, DeVito has read the artistically precocious writer’s short stories and unexpurgated diary, and drew on her trips to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
And she met with Schloss, 79. “Eva talked to us about the Frank family … and made me think a lot about the father-daughter connection between Otto and Anne. They were very close.”
DeVito calls Anne “a role model,” and hopes her performance reveals “as much truth as possible. Anne is a very likable, open character kids will connect to. We see her grow up, and growing up 50 years ago isn’t so different in some ways than it is today — relating to your parents, trying to be more independent.”
But she is concerned, as many of her peers are, about the modern genocide in Darfur and elsewhere. “There’s still a lot prejudice. It’s not over. And it’s important to remind people about that.”
Whether she shines as Anne, or misses the mark, DeVito is sure of one thing. “It’s wonderful,” she says, before heading off to rehearsal, “to do a play that really means something.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org