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