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Playwright wins prize for new take on Theresienstadt

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Alice Abracen won this year's Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition for her play, The Covenant. (Heather Solomon photo)

Alice Abracen enjoys weighing both sides of an argument and sees the importance of voicing conflicting beliefs. Her plays often spring from the fertile fields of religion, which gives her a harvest of opposite opinions to write about.

Her newest play, The Covenant, won first prize in the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition (CJPC) in May and was given a reading at the Segal Centre. It shows the horrifying dilemma of Jews forced into helping the Nazis perpetrate the infamous charade of normalcy in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia during the Red Cross’s visit in 1944.

“Humanization is important in theatre, but sometimes that involves humanizing people whose ideas we find morally reprehensible,” says the 26-year-old.

If you don’t humanize them, she believes, the stories become dry facts that blow away with time. And so, Abracen quickly refutes anyone’s claim that her choice to write about the Holocaust is milking an exhausted subject.

“In refusing to talk anymore about the Holocaust, we’d let ourselves off the hook for the crises we’re facing today,” she says.

READ: SCULPTOR SHOWS MASTERY OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

Abracen wrote the play from the point of view of two young professionals – Hilde, a doctor, and Peter, an ambitious politician who serves on one of the committees that lists fellow Jews for deportation.

Peter’s hardening demonstrates “the compromises we’re forced to make over our lives and how those whittle away at our souls and our psyches.”

In her play The Tour, a Jewish tourist and her Muslim guide trade outlooks while taking in the ancient wonders of a site in Syria, before an army moves in to destroy it.

Abracen’s playwright mother, Ann Lambert, who has always been a role model for her, directed the play under its earlier title, The Guest, for the Montreal Fringe Festival last year.

“We both like writing very political theatre,” says Abracen, who has been penning plays since the age of 12.

In 2015, she wrote the play, Omission, which was staged by the Alumnae Theatre Company in Toronto in January. It follows a Latin-American cardinal on the eve of being elected pope, who’s confronted by a journalist who has knowledge of his war crimes 30 years earlier.

She associates part of her fascination with religion with her upbringing. “There’s something interesting about living in Quebec, where religion can often be associated with social stagnation and conservatism,” says Abracen. “Growing up as a Reform Jew, I pushed back against that. I’ve always seen my tradition to be very much about social change.”

Scripting Purim spiels for Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom for the past three years has been a lighter exercise of her skills, but no less enjoyable. “It’s really nice to write a play where everything ends happily,” she says.

Abracen graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and religious studies in 2015. She credits her theatrical approach to “grappling with biblical and Talmudic texts with morally complicated characters.”

While participating in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, she planned her next stop: the three-year professional playwriting program at the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS).

Her play, What Rough Beast, is about students who fight about whether to invite a controversial alt-right speaker to their college.

Staged by her NTS graduating class in May, it asks, “When is approaching the other side for dialogue a kind of concession? When is it a necessity? And when is it only putting more people at risk?”

Abracen is on her way to Chile this October for a reading of Omission at the Women Playwrights International Conference.