Sunday, December 5, 2021

‘The People Downstairs’ – Ordinary People Caught in Extraordinary Times


The ghost light is off.  The theatre once again comes alive.  It is not as if there is an on-off switch.  Reopening after nearly two years is like opening a new theatre, further complicated by Covid protocols. Through it all, Palm Beach Dramaworks persevered, fully committed to its mission statement, Theatre To Think About. 

The reopening debuts a fully developed play, The People Downstairs by Michael McKeever, commissioned and workshopped by the theatre company.  While the Diary of Anne Frank (the play and then the movie which was based on the Diary) is filled with gathering dread and the inevitability of the “resolution,” one doesn’t really think much of that other side of the story, the impact on the lives of the “people downstairs,” the ones who made a conscious choice of risking their own lives to keep these people alive until the expected joyful day of the Allied liberation, which tragically came too late.  The topic is as relevant today as the period in which The People Downstairs is set.  If politicians are not concerned about the erosion of democracy and the threat of fascism, the arts are on guard.

So while we know of the travails and terror endured by Anne Frank and the seven other occupants of their tiny hiding place from her Diary, what could life have been like for those who chose to hide them and keep them supplied and safe?  The real life character of Miep Gies was one of their lifelines.  She played a minor role in the Diary of Anne Frank play, but the major one in The People Downstairs.

As a refresher, the antecedent play opens with Miep and Otto Frank.  It is the end of WW II.  Mr. Frank is disheveled, says he’s leaving Amsterdam.  No she protests, this is your home.  But there are too many memories for him.  Frank: Miep, I’m a bitter old man.  I shouldn’t speak to you like this…after all that you did for us…the suffering.  Miep: No. No.  It wasn’t suffering.  You can’t say we suffered.  Mr. Frank: I know what you went through, you and Mr. Kraler. I’ll remember it as long as I live.  Miep hands him the diary.  It is then a memory play.

Anne from her diary:  It’s the silence of the nights that frightens me the most….The days aren’t too bad.  At least we know that Miep and Mr. Kraler are down there below us in the office. Our protectors, we call them. I asked Father what would happen to them if the Nazis found out they were hiding us. Pim said that they would suffer the same fate that we would…Imagine! They know this, and yet when they come up here, they’re always cheerful and gay as if there were nothing in the world to bother them.

Yes Imagine!  Playwright Michael McKeever has done just that: it makes for an ominous play to open after the theatre was shut during the pandemic.  Think how things have changed during this period.  We emerge a country which should have pulled together, but pulled apart.  Can fascism happen here?  The People Downstairs watched in that context speaks to our present times.


The setting is the office of Travies and Company a wholesaler and makers of spice, the award-wining scenic designer, Michael Amico, creates the perfect functional space for the play’s action and in faithful keeping with what it might have looked like in 1942 Amsterdam.  Stage left is the stairway that leads to the secret small annex which housed eight people for more than two years and stage right is the doorway that leads down a stairway to the street or to the factory/warehouse where the workers are (two of whom make appearances in the play).  They are there during the working day except for lunch hour.  They believe, as Otto Frank planned, that the Frank family has fled the Nazis and are living in Switzerland.  So it is during that hour or after work that the people downstairs can enter the annex upstairs to deliver provisions and speak to the people they are attempting to save among whom are their beloved manager, Mr. Frank and his family.

All the actors in the play are Palm Beach Dramaworks veterans.  It opens as a memory play as well, Miep stepping across the fourth wall to address the audience directly, as she does with every scene.  Played by Amy Miller Brennan, she is the most complex character developed by the playwright.  She is in virtually all the scenes, is the audience’s guide to the day and year and developments, revealing her inner thoughts to us directly and is central to the action as well.  I loved how she delivered her monologue about hating herself for reveling over the German defeats in Stalingrad with 250,000 German soldiers dying.  Is it no wonder?

Bruce Linser as Henk and Amy Miller Brennan as Miep, Alicia Donelan Photography


Brennan successfully carries the load and accomplishes these multiple responsibilities, as well as engaging in what is the love story with her husband in the play, Henk, who, to her dismay, joins the underground.  Henk is played by one of the most versatile actors at Dramaworks, Bruce Linser, showing his deep love for his wife, and some fissures in the marriage created by the stress of the circumstances.

A veteran of so many PBD plays, Dennis Creaghan, is the modest and loveable Mr. Koophuis, Creaghan reaching deeply to entreat the audience’s sympathy for his resolve and his health.  His interaction with Mr. Visser is colored by frustration and love. 

Playwright Michael McKeever’s acting portrayal of Mr. Visser, the one character who he imagined, is the perfect foil for who else would know this character so intimately?  McKeever saves a lot of the humor in the play for Mr. Visser, so desperately needed to offset the weighty subject.  But his is also the role of creating the conflict in an office resembling a family fundamentally tied by love and respect.  In that regard it is a complicated role.  He is jumpy, questioning the wisdom of what they are doing, predicting (accurately unfortunately) the ultimate end, and even struggles with himself over reporting their actions to the Nazis, knowing, really, he can’t do it, but thinking it might spare them all from Nazi reprisals.  That ambivalence is profoundly communicated by McKeever in his emotional portrayal.

In a sense the ballast of the people downstairs’ mission is Mr. Kraler steadfastly played by Tom Wahl, the man who suddenly finds himself being cast into the role as leader of the company when Otto Frank and family and friends go into hiding.  He must keep the peace among his colleagues.  He insists they pretend every day is just an ordinary day.  Wahl’s strong performance is central to the play’s reality.

Bruce Linser, Amy Miller Brennan, Dennis Creaghan, Michael McKeever, Tom Wahl

Matthew W. Korinko, and John Campagnuolo carry multiple roles, small but critically essential parts for the workings of this play, ranging from downstairs workers (one of whom the office thinks might be an informer) to the Green Police, responsible for finding and rounding up the Jews in Amsterdam.

A special appearance is made by the well known South Florida actor, David Kwait, as Otto Frank, in the play’s bittersweet coda, a prequel to the play circa 1933 when he first meets and hires Miep.  Kwait’s Frank brims optimism and enthusiasm about the future, for his children and for Miep – she’ll even learn to make the jam that contains pectin, their major export!  It is a heart wrenching conclusion.

The play also succeeds because of the expert technical support.  Brian O’Keefe’s costume designs are exacting for the period from Miep’s lace collar on her dress to the men’s three piece suits and period overcoats.  Over the time of the play those become more disheveled and threadbare, the men no longer displaying their expensive pocket watches, presumably traded for fuel or food on the black market.  Miep, who is on the stage practically all the time, makes visual changes to mark the passage of time.

Sound Design by Roger Arnold and Lighting Design by Kirk Bookman work hand in hand to establish the look and feel of the times and the play’s elements, from the ticking clock, the resounding church bell marking the passage of time, and at dramatic moments, the blasts of bombers overhead, and the flash of fire bombs.  The omnipresent sirens of the Green Police heighten the anxiety along with the sounds of wood being smashed with the final apprehension of the occupants of that tiny space.  One can feel being there, immersed in these sensual elements.

A particularly disconcerting “sound effect” at one point is an emotional speech by Hitler on the radio, Koopuis and Miep listening.  With that sound in the background Koopuis says the following about the German people: They’re afraid of what’s foreign to them, of what they don’t understand. And he feeds into it. He feeds into their fear of others. Their fear of what’s different. He articulates all the horrible thoughts that are in their heads. He gives them voice. He screams these thoughts - these horrible thoughts - out loud and wraps them up with a pretty bow of national pride. And people love him for it.  It is a very sobering moment for the audience, enhanced by the sound of Hitler’s ranting and worse, the cheering of the adoring crowds. 

Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes, not only conceived of the play’s premise, but sought out Michael McKeever to write it and worked tirelessly with the PBD Workshop to perfect it.  Hayes also directed the play and had as significant an impact on shaping the characters as McKeever did in writing them.  Directing a new play is vastly different than the typical revival.  Hayes leaves his imprint on the pacing and the integration of the technical elements and together, with the playwright, explores the basic question: can “ordinary people” make a difference in extraordinary times?   How many moments in history have we failed to recognize the characteristics of rising racism and xenophobia, demagogues appealing to nationalism and emotion?  Can fascism happen here, or is it already happening right in front of us?  In this respect the play has a didactic message, but it must in this day and age.

Perhaps audiences will heed the hope of Miep as she clutches the Diary at the end, to cherish the words and memory of Anne Frank and the millions of Jews who perished at the hands of a sociopathic leader.

This play reminds us that there is an inherent goodness in people, people such as the “people downstairs” who did everything to keep eight Jews in hiding for two years.  This is a drama which should be required viewing.


“A country that tolerates evil means- evil manners, standards of ethics-for a generation, will be so poisoned that it never will have any good end.” ― Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here

 "I'm a Holocaust Survivor….It feels like 1929 or 1930 Berlin….Things that couldn't be said five years ago, four years ago, three years ago—couldn't be said in public—are now normal discourse.”― Stephen B. Jacobs, Buchenwald Concentration Camp Survivor

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Rittenhouse Decision and Its Implications

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial had me reeling and consequently I dashed off a Letter to the Editor of my local Palm Beach Post newspaper, one that had to be limited to 200 words.  I sent it to Bruce Rettman, my longest tenured friend from our college years.  I’ve written about our friendship in this space before.  The first such time I included another terrific essay he wrote.

When I sent my piece to him, he responded with something he wrote, not necessarily for publication, but he just wanted to “let it out,” his own reaction to the Rittenhouse decision.  While space made me focus on one aspect, our society’s increasing permissiveness for carrying military style weapons, his is broader, making him ask why he should even stay in this country, the title of his piece, appropriately, I Would Leave.

I thought it was excellent and he agreed to allow me to publish it here.  And as my letter to the Post was restricted in length, I take this opportunity to add back what I had to cut out to make the paper’s length restrictions: 

The absence of sensible gun control laws led directly to the jury’s decision.  They could reach no other verdict in a society which not only allows for the possession of military style weapons but increasingly promotes “Stand Your Ground” laws, either explicit or implied.  Our society and its leaders have actively advanced the 2nd amendment to an absurd degree.  In this respect our judicial system has been rendered as ineffective as another branch of government, Congress.  Gerrymandering and the effort of Republican states to appoint electors to the Electoral College who might be amenable to not certifying future election results also have frightening implications for The Republic’s future. 

As students sixty years ago Bruce and I recited John Masefield’s On Growing Old, never imagining it would happen to us.  Now we come together in that unimaginable future, and find ourselves in a nation we no longer recognize, one slouching towards autocracy.

I Would Leave 

by Bruce Rettman

If I were younger, I would leave the United States of America and make my life in another country.  The trial in Kenosha gives us yet another example of our broken, barbaric society giving legitimacy and permission to a person, in this case an adolescent, to carry a military assault weapon on the street and to use it to commit murder.  Our judicial system has constructed laws that put such action in the category of reasonable behavior so that a jury must return a verdict of not guilty.  A murderer is free to kill again.

I would leave.  What kind of society elects Donald Trump as its president and on his behalf attacks the capitol threatening the lives of legislators and bringing death and destruction to the building that stands as a symbol of our democracy?  What kind of country elects representatives who become leaders of one of its major political parties and defend such action?  We are a society in violent decline plagued by the prejudices that have haunted our history.  We have shown ourselves unequal to resolving our national crimes.

I would leave, but where would I go?  I would go to a society that does not allow its citizens to bear arms and does not have an armed police force.  I would go to a society that offers universal health care.  I would go to a society that advocates the end of the use of fossil fuel and not only takes climate change seriously but does what it can to save the planet from the ravages of our wanton destruction.  I doubt we will act to save ourselves, and I have little faith the USA will do what decent people should do.  We would rather fund what has brought us to prominence.  The USA will continue to fund a military that fights to protect wealth.

What decent person does not advocate for free education? Who would support a system that creates elite colleges and preparatory schools attended for the most part by people of substantial means?  I would look for a society that housed and fed the poor and the elderly and did not complain that such action constitutes entitlements that burden the rest of us.  I would look for a society that offered child care so that the very young and their parents could live healthy lives.  I would look for a society that guaranteed food and shelter for all of its citizens. 

The USA is over.  I know without a reasonable doubt that the United States is not, as most all of its elected leaders feel required to repeat, the greatest country in the world. Rather, it is a country of savage cruelty, at home and abroad, that is responsible for the suffering of people around the globe.  We are a military state and have been at war incessantly, war without end.  I would look for a society at peace with itself and the world. 

I would leave the USA.

My November 25 letter in the Palm Beach Post:



Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The Season of Ebbing


I am at the age of trying to make up for lost time, time that was primarily devoted to the duties required of a man of the 20th century, the hunting and gathering, attracting a mate, raising a family, and of course forging a meaningful career.  But how things change; it appears one does not have to work much anymore, just day trade memes and SPACs and buy Bitcoins.  Also, now that traveling is more a thing of the past, we of that certain age are left with managing our health and pursuing deferred dreams which, for me, involve mostly writing and piano.

I’ve had little formal training in either.  To write, one must, well, write.  I’ve done most of that in this blog space, but creative writing, particularly the genre I’m drawn to, the short story, is different.  The best training is reading creative fiction, both the short story and the novel and I’ll include drama as, in essence, plays are short stories in dialogue. The profundity of the old aphorism, “so many books, and so little time” is taking on a breathless truth.

Consequently, I try to read at least one short story daily, all with other reading.  Recently, somewhat inexplicably, that occasionally has meant returning to novels I read ages ago, ones I might have looked at differently as a younger man.  I have also dipped into some young adult literature.

Yes, “YA” as they say in the library world.  My parents were not readers and I had no real reading guiding light.  In fact, it wasn’t considered “cool” by the crowd I ran around with in my early school years.  So, my reading was confined to school assignments and occasionally science fiction.  I enjoyed Jules Verne in those days, as well as some of the then contemporary Sci-Fi writers, Asimov, Bradbury.  So I never got to read a young adult book.  In my defense, YA was not yet a formal category of writing, but there were numerous books that would have been appropriate, had I only known. 

Making up for lost time is my mantra.  Recently I read the obituary (read them regularly now, wonder why) of Gary Paulsen, just a couple of years older than I, and we shared similar childhood difficulties, his reaction very different than mine: “Paulsen’s teenage years were tumultuous and when things were particularly rough at home, he escaped by running away to the woods where he hunted and trapped animals to survive.”  I “survived” by getting out of the house as much as I could and running around with the wrong crowd.  I like Paulsen’s approach, but what did I know of surviving in the woods as a NYC boy?

Paulsen captured his wide range of self reliance experiences in some 200 published works, his most famous being Hatchet, the story of a 13 year old who is being flown in a small plane to the northern regions of west Canada to join his father for the summer. So, being the new YA reader that I am, I got the book!  

The protagonist’s parents are divorced (mine, unfortunately, were not) and his mother gives him a hatchet as she knows he might find it useful in the woods. Neither she nor he knew that his life would depend on it.  Remarkably our young hero, Brian, lasted for two months in the woods with only his hatchet after the pilot of the small plane had a fatal stroke.  Brian actually controlled the plane well enough to belly dive into a lake and make it out, with his hatchet.

Reading the book I felt I was starting to make up for my own lost childhood.  Needless to say, it is an easy, fast read, but nice pacing, suspense and an opportunity for the reader to project himself into the story.  Paulsen uses certain word repetition for effect.  I found myself thinking of ways to survive while reading about Brian’s ordeal, projecting my 13 year old self into the story.  I remember that person, not a confident boy, and neither was Brian until he was forced to grow up in a hurry and forage for food and shelter, with only his hatchet as a tool It conjured up the unforgettable Tom Hanks movie, Cast Away in my mind (I wonder whether the writer of the film owes some attribution to Paulsen).

I recognized the author’s foreshadowing of the possible resolution to his predicament, the plane being so far off course, in the middle of nowhere.  Paulsen plants that solution early on but never mentions it again until the end.  And the end of course, is uplifting, Brian becoming a local news item for a while, but, becoming a man in just a couple of months, with a new outlook on life.  This is exactly the kind of fiction I should have been reading as a 13 years old, the kind which cries out, ‘read more!”

At the same time I was rereading one of my favorite author’s earlier novels, Straight Man by Richard Russo.

It takes a “straight man” to get the laugh from the insanity surrounding him.  Is the world gone crazy and is “Hank" Devereaux Jr. the only sane person in the book, in spite of his behavior for which he is persecuted?  When I originally read it I laughed uncontrollably, but now, in a later stage of life, I see this work as philosophical as it is funny.  Ocumen’s Razor, which Hank claims to be guided by in figuring things out, keeps getting twisted by human interactions.

I originally read it when I was about the age of the protagonist.  Then, I identified with him.  Rereading, it is still funny but more meaningful than I remember, a great balance between poignancy and hilarity.  Plus there is some stunning writing.  The following could have been written by Updike: "Basketball is a beautiful game for a tall, graceful man like me.  At times I'm overwhelmed by its beauty that I lose touch with reality.  When my shot is falling, when I'm moving across the lane and back out to the perimeter for my jumper, I forget my age and position in life."  (That would be in his 50's, a tenured professor at a mediocre Penn. college.).

Without getting into the details of plot (and there are many characters and subplots), this tale of small-town American university life, brings us through Hank’s midlife crisis as the temporary chairman of his University’s English Department, or as his friend Tony Coniglia puts it, “…youth is the Season of Deeds. The question youth asks is: Who am I?  In the Season of Grace we ask: What have I become?”

It is a hilarious labyrinthine path that leads us on Hank’s journey through the remnants of his “Season of Deeds” to his “Season of Grace,” a concept he still rebels at:  “…I conclude that if William Henry Devereaux Jr. is less than ecstatically happy…it must be because he has not fully accepted his good friend’s invitation to join him and Nolan Ryan and Dr. J., and Nadia Comaneci, and all the others who have lost their best stuff, in entering the Season of Grace.”  And yet, he is relatively at peace at the end, especially after a surprisingly effective kumbaya conclusion, all the characters coming together, a celebration of life, the humor and the sadness all connected by our friends and families.  And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t?  We’ve got Company!”