Role Playing: Lance Baker embodies the ennui, despair of fugitive Jews in ‘Diary of Anne Frank’
Interview: As a Jewish businessman suddenly bereft of a purpose and hiding from Nazis, the actor focuses on isolation in the production at Writers Theatre. Through Aug. 16.
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Of the eight Jewish characters huddled together against the Nazi terror just beyond the door of their little room, in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” one of them arguably feels the confinement, the boredom, the uselessness more than the others. He is Mr. van Daan, a business associate of Anne’s father; and Lance Baker, who portrays this restive soul at Writers Theatre, sees him as a man marginalized in his own heart.
“Van Daan comes in as optimistic as anyone can be under the circumstances,” says Baker. “He has found a hiding place and he was involved in setting it up to make it a home for everybody. But it quickly becomes clear to him that his actual role in this extended household is greatly diminished from the responsibilities he’s always been accustomed to in the business world. Once they’re settled in, there aren’t that many decisions to be made, and Frank (played by Sean Fortunato) will be the one to make them. Van Daan finds himself floating and lost.
“He very quickly isolates himself – smokes, carves a menorah and wonders what happened to his life. As that box housing two families – and the dentist Mr. Dussel – gets tighter, van Daan has momentary blowups. And of course he explodes at Anne, the protagonist the audience has bought a ticket to love. He’s the perfect foil for Anne (Sophie Thatcher), this bright and energetic girl who’s always in everyone’s face. Which means I’m the one hitched to the role of the person who calls her out: ‘Why can’t you keep still, be quiet, be more like your sister?’”
The play, adapted by Wendy Kesselman, recalls the desperate and intense two-year period when Anne Frank, together with her father, mother (Kristina Valada-Viars) and sister (Lila Morse) hid from the Nazi’s round-up of Jews for deportation from Amsterdam to concentration camps. The Frank family was joined by Mr. and Mrs. van Daan (Heidi Kettenring) and their son Peter (Antonio Zhiurinskas). A dentist called Dussel (Kevin Gudahl) later brought their number to eight. In the end, they were all discovered and shipped to the camps.
Writers’ production takes place in the tiny backroom venue at Books on Vernon in Glencoe. Baker says that after several dozen performances, the actors began to feel not just the actual limitations of space and physical movement, but also the sense of daily sameness that must have worn on that little band of fugitives.
“It’s a two-year story in a hundred minutes,” he says. “If, like a prisoner, you mark every performance with a hashtag, you begin to embrace the confinement. As an actor, you’re chafing at the constraint and looking for some other input, for something else to happen. You’re sucking up everything around you and using everything you can get.”
“In those days, it was the male who went out and did the work and got the money,” he says. “Here, there are only domestic duties, and his wife takes care of most of that. But even more importantly, when van Daan was working in the factory, he had a position of authority, with people working under him. Now, there aren’t as many of those kinds of decisions to be made, and Mr. Frank ends up making them all. He’s the guy everyone turns to.
“Van Dann is a good man at heart who wishes he could contribute more. The challenge for me as an actor is how to get the audience to empathize, to relate, to this isolated man. Even if I’m playing a villain , I want the villain to have human characteristics – to show the qualities, good and bad, that dwell in all of us. That’s part of our glory as a human race.”
Sometimes, the distressed man vents his frustration at his wife, though he unquestionably loves her. Baker’s comment on those flare-ups begins with an unexpected burst: “I’ve been having the best time! I can’t say enough about working with Heidi, who is so capable and empathetic. We are so together on the situation where we’re screaming at each other one minute, and five minutes later we’re very affectionate and still quite madly in love.
“The two of us are in many ways the classic pre-war family – Mrs. van Daan is the more gregarious and makes sure the social calendar is full, and decides what to do with the money the man goes out and stoically makes. That isn’t me, by the way. I could happily be a stay-at-home dad for the rest of my life. It’s a very lonely life if you make it all about work.”
If there’s a tipping point, where van Daan’s emptiness turns to petty bitterness, it comes when Mrs. Frank is cutting a small dessert into eight pieces and van Daan accuses her of making the piece for her husband just a tiny bit larger. There’s barely enough food for these eight shut-ins to survive on, and van Daan, with too little on his mind, has become preoccupied with his hunger.
“I love that moment,” says Baker. “It’s really a moment of great ambiguity. I went into it thinking it was a comic moment. You know, van Daan is always obsessed with food, and isn’t he funny? It’s always my first impulse to get a laugh. But the line didn’t get a laugh. What we really have here is people locked in a room together, suffering through the drudgery of every individual day, seeing how far they can push each other. And for van Daan, hunger has gone past the physiological to the psychological. Hunger must be the most primal motivator.”
Between the grim issues of hunger and anxiety, “The Diary of Anne Frank” might appear to be the stuff of pretty bleak theater. But that, says Baker, is exactly what director Kimberly Senior didn’t want.
“She was deeply afraid of people coming in and expecting a dirge,” he says. “She wanted to fill the play with love, light and laughter. We all have this capacity to pull together and survive in the most desperate of conditions – even if we are all taken by a force beyond our control. Amid the hardship and fear, this story expresses a tangible joy.”
- Review of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ at Writers: Read it at ChicagoOntheAisle.com
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