Though the story of Anne Frank’s struggles during the Holocaust is famous internationally, another man’s struggle to tell Frank’s story on the stage is less well known.
“Compulsion,” which premiered last week at the Yale Repertory Theatre, tells the story of Sid Silver, a man obsessed with adapting Frank’s life into a play. The play — directed by Oskar Eustis, written by Rinne Groff ’91 and starring the Emmy- and Tony Award-winning actor Mandy Patinkin — focuses not so much on Frank’s individual story but on the long-lasting emotional toll of the Holocaust.
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“ ‘Compulsion’ asks hard questions about our history, our culture and our nature,” said James Bundy DRA ’95, the School of Drama dean and the artistic director of the Rep, in a letter to the News. “And like all great works of art, it does not offer easy or comfortable answers.”
Silver’s character is based on the real-life figure of Meyer Levin — an American journalist and one of the first to discover Frank’s diary — who became obsessed with the idea of adapting Frank’s story to the stage, especially after his script was rejected in favor of another that became a hit play. But playwright Groff said that while Levin’s fight to produce his version of the play is powerful on its own, she wanted to fictionalize the story to give herself more artistic freedom.
“Representing a historical character is always tricky, and I wanted to free myself up to new ideas, inventing scenes and putting words into the mouth of the character,” Groff said.
But she added that she tried to “pay a sort of homage to Levin” by titling her play after a novel by him. In the novel “Compulsion,” Levin tells the story of the Leopold and Loeb trial by changing names and inventing situations, a strategy Groff said she applied in her play.
A thespian himself, Eustis said he identifies with Silver’s character. Though he does not write plays or hold the copyright to the material, he said he feels as though the plays he directs are his own.
“When you are working on a play, particularly a new play, you feel personally attached to the subject matter and have a sense of ownership that is powerful and passionate and not entirely reasonable,” Eustis said.
In order to focus the audience’s attention on the play’s story, Eustis said he decided to put on the production with a three-actor cast. Two of the actors, Hannah Cabell and Stephen Barker Turner, play multiple roles, while Patinkin’s Silver remains the crux of the play.
Patinkin, who returned to the theater after ending his off-Broadway run of “The Tempest” and leaving the CBS television series “Criminal Minds,” decided to star in the play immediately after reading the script, Eustis said. The story had a special resonance with him because Patinkin is Jewish, he added.
“Convincing Mandy to do the play was the easiest thing I’ve ever done,” Eustis said. “He called me up two days after I sent him the script, and said, ‘If you do this play with anyone else, I’ll kill you.’ ”
In addition to the trio of cast members, puppets play the roles of Frank and her family. Groff, who wrote the directions for the puppets into the play, said she did not want the representation of Frank to be “so literal.”
“It felt wrong to have an actress represent her,” Groff said.
Groff added that she is excited to see her play be produced at her alma mater.
“I went to all the Rep shows while I was a student here,” Groff said. “It’s wonderful to see my own work on the same stage.
“Compulsion” will play through Feb. 28.