There's no way to watch "The Diary of Anne Frank" without feeling a knot in the pit of your stomach as the performers take the stage.
"They were real people," a mournful voice says in your head. "They suffered terribly and undeservedly and then met a tragic fate."
Perhaps understanding that the audience will feel this way, director Tanya Roller has let her production at the Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park emphasize the ordinariness of the eight Jews who spent two years hiding from the Nazis in cramped rooms over an Amsterdam business.
Helped by Wendy Kesselman's script, the play focuses less on the horrors of war and more on the personalities forced to share such a tiny living space. These are people who are greedy and weak, loving and resolute, argumentative and falling in love. They're people like you and me.
Kesselman keeps young Anne — just 13 when she went into hiding in 1942 — front and center, and with her youthful spirit, actress Jenny Ornstein strikes just the right balance between childishness and the maturity present in someone who could write as Anne did.
"Margot's perfect; she never gets into arguments with anyone," she pouts after her mother chastises her while praising her older sister, Margot.
Yet later, using words taken directly from the real Anne's diary: "We're surrounded by darkness and danger, and in our desperate search for a way out we keep bumping into each other," she says, describing her group's situation and personality conflicts.
Those conflicts provide the play's most engrossing moments.
Anne repeatedly butts heads with her mother, played by Jackie Levine, whose nervous stoicism sometimes comes across more like detachment. And her roommate, a moody dentist named Mr. Dussel, also is a thorn in her side. As Dussel, David Strauss brings home the terror of life under Nazi rule as he recounts with shaking voice and watery eyes the names of Jews who have "disappeared."
Anne fairs better with teenage Peter, who as played by Steven C. Fox, is a skittish young man, charmingly shy and awkward around Anne, embarrassed and nervous around his overbearing father.
Anne's devotion to her dad, Otto Frank, is clear in the way Ornstein looks first to him after everything she does. As Otto, Marty Radner is a level-headed mensch, and the depths of emotion in him become apparent in a moving epilogue in which he recounts the fates of the other characters.
Kenneth Jardine, as Mr. Van Daan, is brash and boorish, until he's reduced to stealing bread from the others and then falls apart in his own shame. Karen Edwards-Hill makes silly Mrs. Van Daan multidimensional. She robustly supplies some needed lighter moments in the somber story — she must have her own chamber pot — but also fiercely defends her son, and surprisingly her husband when he needs her most.
In a smaller role, Marion Marsh radiates warmth as Miep, the woman who risked her safety to bring the Franks food and supplies, with kindness and regret washing over her face. She emphasizes the normalcy of the people portrayed, as well: "We're not heroes," she says matter-of-factly. "We just don't like the Nazis."
The set makes clever use of the Breakthrough's tiny space — Peter's closetlike bedroom really is just a curtained alcove under a staircase to the attic. Street noise from outside the theater gets in the action, too: When noise from Fairbanks Avenue traffic or a real train on the nearby tracks intrudes into the theater, it's a reminder of how the Franks lived, hearing the sounds of the real world by day but keeping quiet, removed from it.
But although place is important, it's the people who make this a story worth telling.
When the eight dreamily discuss what they miss most about freedom, it's the simplicity of their wishes that hit home: A bath in a real bathtub, a pot of coffee with cream.
It's a reminder of the power of the ordinary in the face of overwhelming horror.
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See for yourself
•What: Breakthrough Theatre production of "The Diary of Anne Frank," by Wendy Kesselman
•When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays and Monday, March 7; 3 p.m. Sundays; through March 13
•Where: Breakthrough Theatre, 419A W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park
•Tickets: $18; $15 seniors; $12 students
•Call: 407-920-4034Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times