The Globe and Mail – New play looks at Anne Frank – alive and well and living in 1950s Brooklyn
Winnipeg Free Press – Winnipeg playwright imagines teen Holocaust diarist as a young woman who survived
Three months before Anne Frank and her fellow attic-dwellers were discovered by the Gestapo in 1944, she had written, “After the war I’d like to publish a book called The Secret Annex.”
There was no after the war for the Jewish teenager, who along with her older sister Margot, died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 and left behind her heart-rending diary. She remains forever the young woman in the attic, a cherished symbol of 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.
In her satisfying stage drama The Secret Annex — which had its première at the RMTC Warehouse Thursday — Winnipeg playwright Alix Sobler has imagined an alternate, extended fate for Anne, Margot and the other six hiders in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
In her Holocaust hypothesis, the girls and Peter, who shared their captivity, unaccountably survive and make it to America, the land of self-creation. It’s 1955 and Anne, 25, is happily rooming with Margot in Brooklyn, obsessed with getting The Secret Annex published, but she finds a world uninterested in a chronicle of a young girl’s adolescent problems and tensions that arose during a covert life in cramped quarters.
Modern American womanhood is represented by Virginia Belair, an unmarried, career book agent moving up the corporate ladder, but cautious about any misstep that might give her male bosses a reason “to axe the skirt.” She is brutally honest in her review of Anne’s treasured script, which she regards as boring compared to grand stories about crematoriums and death marches. She suggests her diary needs “a boffo, socko rewrite.” Ouch.
All of a sudden Anne is stripped of what made her special to the world. She must face the tragic irony that people are more memorable if they die young and horribly. Those who live ordinary lives are forgotten. The rest of The Secret Annex has Anne trying to figure out her purpose in a world not missing her published diary.
Sobler, together with first-time director Heidi Malazdrewich, skilfully wed the power of historical fact with the allure of a what-if scenario. Readers of the diary will be fascinated, if not occasionally taken aback, at witnessing their beloved Anne in her underwear prior to premarital sex, dancing the frug and being referred to as “baby doll.” Anne, pulled down from her pedestal by Sobler for a couple of entertaining hours, is still a compelling figure as an adult, resolutely confident, admirably determined, maddingly self-involved and unswervingly truthful.
Toronto actress Tal Gottfried, in her Winnipeg debut, is an easy sell as a grown-up Anne, but more crucially captures her spark and allure, especially with the men in her life. That’s best displayed in a charming scene in which she interviews for a receptionist job –although she has none of the required skills — but manages to get hired after sitting in the beguiled boss’s chair. Gottfried generates underdog empathy that keeps the audience on Anne’s side throughout her struggles.
Sobler has more of a blank slate with Margot, who gets only a few mentions in the diary and often didn’t get along with Anne. She is depicted as the conventional, placid, no-fuss sibling well-played by Daria Puttaert, although the unnatural-looking second-act wig she wears is a surprising faux pas.
Peter, who gave Anne her first kiss while in hiding, is her link to their terrible ordeal. That bond is mixed with deep feelings of love that torment Peter. The ever-steady Andrew Cecon looks ideally European as Peter, although the source of his accent is mysterious.
Jennifer Lyon’s Virginia Belair carries the weight of thwarting Anne’s bid for immortality, but offers some welcome comic relief. Lyon’s performance as Virginia offers a tasty cocktail made up of mostly bluntness with a twist of flakiness. Anne’s Jewish boss Michael Stein, played appealingly by Kevin Kruchkywich, parallels what the audience feels about her as he becomes immediately intrigued with this vivacious young woman, then smitten and ultimately terribly worried that she won’t escape her attic once and for all.
The second act turns much darker on Charlotte Dean’s versatile, tree-flanked set. Sobler gets down to the serious business of giving back what was stolen from Anne: her life, her voice and a happy ending. She whips up a believable scenario of what Anne would have done if denied her literary legacy.
If nothing else, with The Secret Annex, Sobler has provided another artistic opportunity to keep the memory of Anne Frank alive for future generations.
Is living well really the best revenge? Or is the disturbing truth that we prefer a martyred hero to a survivor?
These are some of the provocative questions behind The Secret Annex – a new play by Winnipegger Alix Sobler that starts from an intriguing, but risky, premise. (The play – originally slated to premiere at Winnipeg Jewish Theatre last season – is seeing its inaugural production at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Warehouse.)
Rather that dying in a Nazi concentration camp, Anne Frank – famous for giving a relatable, human face to the incomprehensible horrors of the Holocaust with her Diary of a Young Girl – has survived the war in Sobler’s revisionist history. She finds herself living in post-war New York, desperately trying to find a publisher for her diary – and discovering that no one seems interested in the story of a young, Jewish girl who may have suffered, but who has nonetheless survived. “I’m sure it was awful,” a pragmatic editor (Jennifer Lyon) tells Anne in rejecting her. “In its own way.”
And so Anne faces the question of what her life can – or must – be. Is her responsibility to tell her story, in service to the millions who didn’t live to tell theirs? Or is it to live a life that’s remarkable only for its ordinariness – a life that a murderous regime tried to steal from her?
Sobler’s treatment of these questions is thoughtful and compelling. It’s a slow-burner of a play, taking its time to establish its characters and their complicated relationships. And it makes its protagonist an imperfect hero, but one whose conflict we feel viscerally – and who becomes all the more real to us for it.
And it’s more real, too, for the subtle reminders that the characters we’re watching onstage are, in a sense, ghosts. “Forget how we would have suffered,” this fictional Anne says, imagining the arrest, imprisonment, and death that was the fate of the real Anne. “Imagine what we would have missed.”
In the lead role, Tal Gottfried delivers a vital, textured take on Anne – there’s still a hint of girlishness to her, but moreso the sense of a crusader carrying a heavy burden. Whether dancing to ‘60s pop or poring frantically through her notes for a story that she can sell to a publisher, her Anne is a flawed woman, but most importantly alive in every sense of the word.
There’s solid work from the four members of the supporting cast as well. Andrew Cecon is believably morose as Peter van Pels, unable to shake the sense that he and Anne are bound together by their years hiding in the attic; Kevin Kruchkywich brings charm and some welcome comic relief as Michael Stein, an American Jew whose interest in Anne may be more than just romantic; Daria Puttaert is effective as Anne’s sister (and foil) Margot; and Lyon is compelling as the tough editor who repeatedly rejects – and yet strangely mentors – Anne.
Heidi Malazdrewich makes an impressive professional directorial debut with this production. It’s smartly paced – not rushed, but never draggy – and she successfully draws the complex relationships between the play’s characters.
The depiction of Anne Frank as a survivor is more than just an intriguing “what if” in The Secret Annex. It’s a moving tribute to the millions, like the real Anne Frank, whose lives and futures were stolen. Yet it’s also a reminder that there are millions of stories we’ll never hear, but that are quietly heroic in their own way.
What if Anne Frank survived the Nazi concentration camps? This is the premise of Winnipeg playwright’s Alix Sobler’s “The Secret Annex”, playing for an audience for a first time at the MTC Warehouse from now until March 8, 2014. This is a challenging proposition, since the character of Anne Frank is not a fictional character but indeed a well-established historical figure; one that has gained worldwide attention after her diary was discovered following Frank’s death in the holocaust. Instead of being a liability for the play, Alix Sobler utilises this fact as a way to explore themes of survival and how all of us make choices in how we live our life.
Distant memories of “The Diary of Anne Frank” allow the audience to remember character traits of the main characters or the play: Peter van Pels, Margot and Anne Frank. However, now we get to experience them as adults and in a North-American setting, making this story less historical and more of an emotional exercise that hits close to home. Anne still possess the youthful traits that made her diary (Kitty) so approachable for people of all ages, all around the world. She is confident in who she is (both in her talents and weaknesses) and firm in her objectives. In the play, the fictional adult Anne is challenged by the expectations of adulthood and “settling” into the standard life. Where Margot and Peter will be happy to offer a better life to their children, Anne is convinced their extraordinary circumstances must serve to better the world, their world. Anne is determined to be a writer, and she becomes obsessed with the publication of her diary, her memoire. It’s the survivor’s plea for what they have lived to have meaning, for it to not be forgotten, but more importantly to have happened for a reason.
“The Secret Annex” has moments of humour delivered by an evenly-talented cast that are all properly settled into their characters. The audience, however, never forgets that moments of love and laughter on stage only exist as moments of theatre, since reality has stolen the potential for these moments from the real people. This also means that the darker moments of the play are that much more poignant. Similarly to fictional Anne’s struggle to write stories where characters die, have cancer, live heartaches, we, as the audience, feel the weight of the choices Sobler has taken in giving holocaust survivors moments typical to any adult life.
Fictional Anne refuses to “let go” of the attic, the annex, and we as audience members silently don’t want her to, even though we wish that Anne, like all survivors, could find joy and magic in the simple fact that we are alive. For the fictional Anne, we wish what the real Anne Frank once prescribed: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”