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Anne Frank comes alive in believable tale

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Andrew Cecon as Peter Van Pels and Tal Gottfried as Anne Frank in The Secret Annex, a play by Alix Sobler set in America after the Franks survive the war. Playing at the Tom Hendry Theatre Feb. 20 to March 8

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Andrew Cecon as Peter Van Pels and Tal Gottfried as Anne Frank in The Secret Annex, a play by Alix Sobler set in America after the Franks survive the war. Playing at the Tom Hendry Theatre Feb. 20 to March 8 Photo Store

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.

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 22, 2014 G3

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