MONTREAL – Being locked in an attic for three years under threat of death might drive anyone around the bend.
In The Secret Annex, on at the Segal Centre until Feb. 21, playwright Alix Sobler postulates that Anne Frank may well have been unable to function in freedom had she survived her hiding place in Amsterdam.
What plagues her existence and taints every enjoyment is her obsession with publishing her memoirs, followed by the horrid disappointment that she can’t be the voice of the six million who perished.
Anne walks the tightrope of finding herself alive while survivor’s guilt is eating at her. It’s a revealing trip into her psyche that helps the new generation in the audience understand the realities of coping with this trauma.
Still, one is left with mixed feelings and a sense of unease that fiction has just tinkered with a sacred memory.
At 25, Anne remains a hyperactive chatterbox, settled in Brooklyn with her engaged sister, Margot, jitterbugging and jiving to the hit parade as the play progresses through the six subsequent years of her life. Anne’s perpetual state of immaturity is the character’s bane. She’s a tiresome brat and a tease. Yet, there’s something magnetic about Anne’s inability to let go of the past and move on.
How Anne makes that transition involves a prolonged period of beating her head against a wall as she tries to publish her story, which, now that she has survived, does not have the cachet of having been written by a “martyred” child.
It is poignant and lovely, as one of the characters describes it, but with Anne still in the world, it is also too personal, localized in too narrow a place (obviously the movie Room had not yet come out when the prospective publisher in the play offered this criticism) and without the gore and horror that make a good male war story. Had Anne survived, it does make us wonder if Kitty, her diary, would have been relegated to the trash bin of history rather than its bookshelves.
Sobler is skilful in making you believe that this is indeed how things might have turned out. The audience feels guilty for disliking Anne at times, seeing her manipulate the men in her life without regard to their feelings.
Anne’s love life has her vacillating between Peter, her old attic flame from adolescence, and Michael Stein, her boss in a financial firm where she is hired as a receptionist.
Director Marcia Kash, a veteran of Anne plays, is inventive and sensitive to her material and the actors are topnotch. Sarah Farb is ditsy and obsessive as Anne, managing to capture her still teetering on the precipice of adulthood.
Brett Donahue as Peter, her first love who still carries a torch for her, is willing to humour Anne at her worst. He and Anne Cassar, who plays the long-suffering Margot, have been able to incorporate the sense of speaking English as a second language, whereas Farb, though the lines call for her to repeatedly get tripped up by American expressions, flows along faultlessly.
It’s not an accent, but rather pronunciation and cadence of speech that make them believable.
Marcel Jeannin as Anne’s boss is natural and warm. Judith Baribeau helps bring comedy into the mix as the sympathetic but obstructive publisher to whom Anne submits and resubmits her manuscript.
Set and costume designer Michael Eagan delights the eye with minimal but stylish set pieces on a simple oval ground plan.
Christian Thomas’ interval music has just a hint of violins keening, and here is where The Secret Annex finds success: it does not wallow in sentiment and gives the audience room to think about a subject that has, until this play, been too overpowering.