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Winnipeg playwright imagines teen Holocaust diarist as a young woman who survived

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In Shalom Auslander's 2012 satiric novel Hope: A Tragedy, an elderly Anne Frank has survived the Nazi concentration camps and insists to the publisher of her diary that she is alive.

"Stay dead," she is told. "Nobody wants a live Anne Frank."

The publication of her diary by her father in 1947 lifted Frank from the anonymous mass of victims and turned her into the Holocaust's poster child. The story of her years of confinement and death in Bergen-Belsen has become so cherished that to raise her from the dead to make a comeback in a work of fiction requires oodles of chutzpah.

Frank gets the Lazarus treatment from Winnipeg playwright Alix Sobler in her what-if drama The Secret Annex, premièring Feb. 20 at the RMTC Warehouse. Her Anne is 25 and living in New York City, desperate to interest a publisher in the teen memoir of her time in hiding.

"I say I take Anne Frank away from the world and give the world to Anne Frank," is how Sobler explains her artistic intent.

The Secret Annex is the culmination of a lifelong, intimate bond with the bubbly, talkative Anne, who is forever the young woman in the attic. The New York-born Sobler was 12 when she first read Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, which has sold more than 30 million copies.

"As a kid, I thought I was Anne Frank," says Sobler, communications manager for the Winnipeg Arts Council. "I felt when I read the diary I could have written some of it. There were some lines that were lifted from my own diary."

Her mother reinforced that personal connection, often commenting about how she saw a lot of Anne in Sobler.

Playing Anne Frank on stage is almost a rite of passage for a Jewish actress, but Sobler never got the chance. In 2004, while wrapping up another summer on the Canadian fringe festival circuit performing America vs. Canada in Edmonton, she had a beer with Winnipeg performer Jason Neufeld, whom she would marry in 2010. Sobler lamented that she had aged out of ever being cast as Anne Frank -- unless, she joked, Anne survives. They both laughed heartily and Neufeld pronounced that it was an inspired idea.

Sobler wasn't ready to take on that writing challenge, but held on to the idea and returned to it a few years ago. What she first conceived as a solo show that she would perform grew into a multi-character piece of speculation.

She was aware that allowing Frank to live would be negating her legacy. That would trouble those who consider her a sacred cow.

"I approached her with caution," Sobler says. "I was prepared for that because people are so protective of her and her memory and her impact. I was hesitant because I gave her a life and so she falls in love and is very flawed, makes mistakes, has selfish moments and struggles."

The Brown University graduate set out to add some dimension to Frank's image, which she says is often flat and somewhat sanitized. The hope was to humanize her and expand the understanding of her beyond the diary.

"We've made assumptions about who we think she is; I wanted to explore that," says Sobler, whose last mainstage work was WJT's well-received Some Things You Keep. "I don't stay married to the facts. It's based on Anne Frank, but there is a lot of me in the play."

In The Secret Annex, Frank, played by Toronto's Tal Gottfried, is living in Brooklyn with her older sister Margo (Daria Puttaert) and grappling with an editor (Jennifer Lyon), who is demanding major rewrites to her diary. It follows her struggle to attain her dream of becoming a writer.

Sobler was uncomfortable with exposing Frank to the angst of adulthood.

"It's hard to make Anne Frank suffer," she says. "Putting her through what she needs to be put through was not easy for me. She's a hero of mine and I admire her greatly. Sometimes following the rules of theatre got in the way of what you want for somebody."

While there was some temptation for Sobler to play Frank in her own play, she was more than happy to sit this one out again and focus on the writing.

"It's all about Anne Frank living and I wanted to see that," says the writer, whose next play is about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York that killed 146 garment workers, most of whom were recent Jewish and Italian immigrant women.

"Every time I watched them run the play, I thought, 'Gosh, I wish it was true.'"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2014 C1


Updated on Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 7:10 AM CST: Replaces photo, changes headline

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