What if Anne Frank had survived? What would her life and struggles consist of after enduring the most well known genocide of the past century, possibly of all history? This is the alternate universe that writer Alix Sobler portrays in The Secret Annex, directed by Marcia Kash. With a cast of only five, Sarah Farb stars as the surviving heroine. A veteran to the role of Anne Frank, Farb played the protagonist at the Stratford festival last season and now reprises her role effortlessly in Montreal. Anne Frank, a young German Jew, was hidden in an attic for three years during the Nazi control of Amsterdam. In Sobler’s world, however, Anne survived through Nazi rule and is now living in New York City at the age of 25. As an aspiring writer, she struggles to have her diary published to show the world her collection of memories from her confinement.
The play takes its time settling into the characters and plot, but the connections between the actors are what really make the relationships onstage work. Anne and her older sister Margot (Anne Cassar) share an intricate relationship, yet the poignancy of Margot’s maternal instincts towards her younger sister are pure. The reality of their relationship is organic and unforgiving, exploring jealousy and resentment from over a decade and transforming it into a touching moment of forgiveness and unconditional love. Anne’s relationships with Peter Van Pels (Brett Donahue) and Michael Stein (Marcel Jeannin) embody a misguided love triangle, with Peter serving as the dashing new mystery man and Michael the lifelong friend. Yet, despite the overused storyline of a man in love with his childhood friend, their outwardly platonic love for one another is tender and true. Editor Judith Baribeau (Virginia Belair) embodies the feminist American dream, but declines Anne’s book because of its doom and gloom message.
The simple set design sophistically portrays scenes such as an apartment living room, editor’s office, and bedroom with minimal furniture. The open space is used to the actors’ advantage; the audience can perfectly see the actors maneuver their way through a decorated and furnished room. The lighting is versatile and effective, transitioning from the naturally lit living room to the dimness of a bedroom, and a late night winter’s walk.
The play occasionally undermines how monumental the events in Europe were. Director Marcia Kash mentions in a program interview that she was hesitant to join the project, as it seemed “sacrilegious” to fabricate a life “so cruelly cut short.” At various times, it was clear that the dialogue was meant to produce a laugh from the audience, yet only uncomfortable chuckles were ever heard. The casual attempts at humour overshadow and belittle the true emotion of the script. The ‘joke’ regarding Anne’s lack of sexual willpower due to her imprisonment was not only disrespectful but also incredibly disturbing.
Sobler’s revisionist spin on the historic accounts of Anne Frank’s life is clear, however they fail to make their mark. The play succeeds in asking the uncomfortable and disturbing question: Do people love the story of Anne Frank because she represents a martyred heroine of tragedy? Would Anne’s beloved story be as loved if she had survived, or would it never make it past the publisher’s office? It’s lovely to pretend that her story had a happy ending, but it didn’t. The reality of the holocaust pervades even the alternate universe of the play. Anne never lived to see her 16th birthday; an infinite amount of possibilities halted the day she entered the Amsterdam attic. Anne’s diary serves as a stark reminder of the lives that were lost during the Holocaust, and the dreams that could not be followed because of it.
The Secret Annex will be playing until Feb. 21 at the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts (5170 ch. de la Côte-Ste-Catherine). Tickets begin at $44.