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Thanks for the Memories presents 'Anastasia'

As a child, Peter Wickliffe remembers wondering about the fate of a young Russian grand duchess who was rumored for almost a century to have survived her aristocratic family's execution at the hands of the Bolsheviks.

"When I was a kid, my mom would watch documentaries about the Grand Duchess Anastasia and the rumors about her," Wickliffe recalls.

With the truth behind the killings obscured for years during Communist rule, stories circulated around the world that Anastasia Nikolaevich was not shot in 1918 along with her three sisters, brother and parents. Other tales say she was shot, but survived and was hidden away by sympathetic guards who watched over family members while they were held captive following the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Many women later surfaced in Europe and claimed to be Anastasia, most famously a woman institutionalized in a German asylum in 1920 who was known as Anna Anderson.

The Ashland-based Thanks for the Memories Theatre Company will explore that mystery and its questions of identity with its production of "Anastasia."

Performances are set for 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays and 2 p.m. Sundays, March 13-22, at Pioneer Hall, 73 Winburn Way, Ashland. Tickets cost $10 and can be purchased online at tfththatre.com or at Paddington Station, 125 E. Main St., Ashland.

Wickliffe, founder and co-artistic director of the company, says the mystery of the grand duchess's fate was famously presented in the 1956 film "Anastasia" starring Ingrid Bergman.

"I was more familiar with the movie version. When I saw there was a play version, I got excited. I like history pieces," Wickliffe says, noting the play features strong writing.

The play will leave audience members pondering the mystery, he says.

"It leaves it up for you to decide in the end," Wickliffe says. "The audience can come out saying, 'Definitely it's her,' or, 'No, I don't think so.' "

In the play, a suicidal amnesiac woman is swept into a scheme by former Cossack prince-turned-taxi-driver Bounine, who is plotting to acquire 10 million pounds being held in trust for any surviving members of the royal Romanoff dynasty. As the conspiracy moves forward, she is coached to act like the grand duchess and fool Anastasia's grandmother into thinking she is her long-lost granddaughter. Hints emerge that the woman may actually be Anastasia.

In real life, the mystery of the grand duchess's fate was solved when the graves for all the family members were revealed between 1991 and 2007. DNA testing confirmed the remains were members of the royal family, while further DNA testing showed Anna Anderson from the German asylum was an imposter.

Marcelle Maurette's play was written decades before those discoveries.

Although history now has the answers, Wickliffe says the play "Anastasia" is still intriguing and relevant today. The classic — adapted into English by Guy Bolton — was made into a film that featured an Oscar-winning performance by Ingrid Bergman who starred as "Anya," the last surviving daughter of Czar Nicholas II of Russia.

"The play is not as open-ended as it used to be. But even with the fact they've said they've found all the bodies, people held onto the rumors so long they're not willing to let go," he says. "It's still lingering. Hopefulness is human nature."

The play features the local acting talent of Meagan Kirby, Presila Quinby, Wickliffe, Zaq Wentworth, Jonny Degner, John Richardson and Catherine Hansen. Wickliffe directs and designs the show with Hansen, the company's co-artistic director.

From left: Peter Wickliffe, Meagan Kirby and Presila Quinby appear in Thanks for the Memories' production of Marcelle Maurette's drama 'Anastasia.' Photo illustration courtesy of Graham Lewis.