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.
The Secret Annex runs at the Tom Hendry Theatre (RMTC Warehouse) until Mar. 8.