Emily Wexler majored in drama at Vassar College and graduated in 2014. She was last seen at Half Moon Theatre as Luisa in “The Fantasticks.”
Emily Wexler didn’t hesitate when Half Moon Theatre offered her the starring role of Anne Frank in its newest production titled Yours, Anne – a poignant, inspiring adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. “Not for a second -- I said yes, right away!” Wexler said, flashing her sunny, open smile. “I was really excited to work with Half Moon again and [Director] Michael Schiralli!”
She readily admits, however, that before she started preparing for this role, she had never even read Anne’s diary -- the world-famous memoir written by a teenage girl about the two years she spent in hiding with her family and four other Jewish people during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam in World War II.
“Before this show, I didn’t have much of a relationship with Anne Frank’s diary,” she said. She had visited the Anne Frank House on holiday, walking through the spare, claustrophobic rooms of the “Secret Annex” – Anne’s name for the secret hiding place. So Wexler did know the basic outline of Anne’s story, and perhaps just as important, she understood the history and the context.
“I have a family connection to the Holocaust,” Wexler said. Her mother’s family were German Jews -- just like Anne Frank and her family -- and her mother’s father survived Dachau. Wexler said that like many German Jews, her family considered themselves to be loyal German citizens, fully assimilated into the German culture. As the Nazis rose to power, it was shocking for German Jews to find themselves branded as alien, to be disenfranchised and demonized by their own country. Anne Frank’s parents, fearing the worst, fled to the Netherlands, with hopes of emigrating to America.
“So Anne is German, and she is Dutch, and she is Jewish, and a lot of other things,” Wexler said. “Questions of identity come up a lot in the diary, and they come up a lot in this play. And that is something that I definitely relate to. Being Jewish is not a huge part of my identity. It’s not how I think of myself first, and yet it is there and it’s important.”
During a recent post-show discussion, Wexler was asked how she prepared to play a character as big, and historical, as Anne Frank. Wexler laughed and said in some ways it was perhaps easier for her to prepare than for other cast members. “I have the benefit of having my character’s diary,” she pointed out. “I have access to the innermost workings of her psyche. That’s kind of amazing, really.”
“We couldn’t relate to the actual experiences these characters went through in the Annex, but we could put ourselves into their emotions in that situation, their fears and frustrations.”
Yours, Anne director Michael Schiralli didn’t look at the play as a museum piece, he emphasized the relevance of the story and the characters today. “He encouraged all of us to connect to the underlying emotions of our characters,” Wexler added. “We couldn’t relate to the actual experiences these characters went through in the Annex, but we could put ourselves into their emotions in that situation, their fears and frustrations.”
Wexler especially appreciates the way family relationships are explored in the play. “You see Anne with her parents, with her sister – sometimes she doesn’t know how to talk to them!” Wexler pointed out. “That’s why she needs the diary so desperately. It’s an outlet for her frustration and anger and sadness.”
...One of the most important aspects of the play for teens is “the gift that Anne gives Peter, and the gift she gives herself. . .a way out of the dark.”
In exploring Anne’s character in the play, Wexler describes her as a young feminist. “She’s terrified of becoming her mother. She doesn’t want to be like her sister, either,” Wexler said. “She doesn’t want to be passive. She’s ambitious! But she also wants to be liked, to be nicer sometimes, and softer, more vulnerable. Writing is her way to combine these different selves. Writing is what makes her feel good.”
More than 2,000 teens are going to see Wexler portray Anne at three special student matinees in the coming week. The actor is excited about this opportunity, because she thinks the character of Anne is someone that any teen will find relevant and fascinating. She thinks one of the most important aspects of the play for teens is “the gift that Anne gives Peter, and the gift she gives herself. . .a way out of the dark.”
“Everyone has dark moments, terrible moments when they feel hopeless and alone,” Wexler said. “Anne is able to think herself out of those moments. When she’s afraid of the night, afraid of the dark, she learns to face her fears and to focus on the positive things in life that are good, that make her happy.”
Emily Wexler flashed that beautiful smile of hers again. “I think that’s a beautiful way to live your life,” she said, thoughtfully. “It makes it easier to connect with other people.”