In Berkeley Rep’s wonderful Compulsion, which had its opening Thursday night, Mandy Patinkin stars as Sid Silver, a Jewish novelist and journalist trying to make sense of the Holocaust. Even though Silver served as a correspondent in World War II, he finds his words inadequate to express the devastation and cruelty expressed against the Jews of Europe.

But when his French wife (played marvelously by Hannah Cabell) hands him Anne Frank’s diary in 1950, Silver realizes he has found “the voice” that expresses the reality of the war. He contacts Otto Frank, Anne’s father, and offers to help find an American publisher for the diary. Silver doesn’t want any money for his efforts, only a promise that he can adapt the diary it into a play.

Compulsion, which is co-produced by Berkeley Rep, The Public Theater in New York, and Yale Repertory Theater, is the story of Silver’s 30-year obsession with Frank and his growing dismay as Otto Frank, Doubleday, and the producer hired to produce the play strip the Jewishness and references to the Holocaust out of Anne’s work.

The competing impulses — to downplay the Jewish aspects of the diary in order to make Anne’s story more universal or to highlight how the Nazis targeted Jews — is a little known aspect of the history of Anne’s diary. The efforts of Meyer Levin, on whom Sid Silver is based, to bring Anne’s work to international attention has also largely been forgotten.  This is the underbelly of the story of Anne’s diary, which has sold more than 20 million copies and been translated into dozens of languages.

Playwright Rinnie Groff read about Levin in a New Yorker article and spent 15 years adapting the story for the stage. She has done an excellent job bringing to life a tormented soul, a man so in love with Anne Frank that he is compelled to spread her message, and a man so myopic, disagreeable, and dishonest that he estranges almost everyone who comes into contact with him.

As directed by Oskar Eustis, Mandy Patinkin makes Silver both odious and attractive and always interesting. As Patinkin has commented in numerous interviews, he feels he was born to play this role. And it fits him to a tee.

The rest of the cast is just as good. Throughout the performance, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Hannah Cabell, who plays Silver’s long-suffering wife as well as Miss Mermin, the Doubleday editor who championed Anne’s diary and who later turns against Silver. Matte Osian plays a revolving cast of characters, each so distinctive and engaging that I could have sworn different actors were playing each part.

Since Silver has such a strong relationship to the memory of Anne Frank, Groff knew that she had to have the girl’s physical presence represented on stage. When she discovered in the course of her research that Levin had once worked with marionettes in a Chicago theater, she decided to use marionettes as part of the cast. Puppets of Anne, Otto Frank, and others appear intermittently in the production and I found their presence added an extra layer of complexity to this moving play. The puppeteers Emily DeCola, Daniel Fay, and Eric Wright manged to manipulate the marionettes so that they seemed to be expressing human emotions.

Compulsion plays through October 31, 2010.

Photos courtesy of Berkeley Rep.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...