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‘The People Downstairs’–Ordinary people caught in extraordinary times

Bruce Linser as Henk and Amy Miller Brennan as Miep at the Palm Beach Dramaworks
Photo by Alicia Donelan

The ghost light is off. The theater 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 theater, complicated by COVID protocols. Through it all, Palm Beach Dramaworks persevered, committed to its mission to deliver “theater to think about.”

Reopening Dramaworks is the play “The People Downstairs” by Michael McKeever, commissioned and workshopped by the theater company. While “The Diary of Anne Frank” is filled with gathering dread and the inevitability of the “resolution,” one doesn’t think much about the impact on the people downstairs, the ones who chose to risk their lives to keep Anne and the others alive until the expected day of the Allied liberation, which tragically came too late.

The topic is as relevant today as during World War II. Even if politicians are not concerned about the erosion of democracy and the threat of fascism, the arts are on guard. The real-life character of Miep Gies plays a minor role in “The Diary of Anne Frank” but the major one in “The People Downstairs.”

As a refresher, the antecedent play opens with Miep and Otto Frank, Anne’s father. It is the end of World War II. Otto is disheveled and says he’s leaving Amsterdam. No, Miep protests, this is your home. But there are too many memories for him.

Otto: “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.”

Otto: “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 McKeever has done just that, and it makes for an ominous play to reopen a theater that was shut during the pandemic. Think how things have changed. We emerged as a country that should have pulled together but pulled apart. Can fascism happen here? Watched in that context, “The People Downstairs” speaks to our times.

The setting is the office of Travies and Co., a wholesaler and maker of spice. The award-winning scenic designer Michael Amico creates the perfect functional space for the play’s action in 1942 Amsterdam. Stage left is the stairway that leads to the secret small annex that houses 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 with the workers, 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 for Switzerland.

It is during lunch 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, Otto 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, and is central to the action. I love how she delivers her monologue about hating herself for reveling in the German defeat in Stalingrad, with 250,000 German soldiers dying. Is it any wonder?

Brennan carries the load and accomplishes these multiple responsibilities, as well as engaging in a 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. Dennis Creaghan plays the modest and loveable Mr. Koophuis. Creaghan entreats the audience’s sympathy for his resolve and his health. His interaction with Mr. Visser is colored by frustration and love.

Playwright McKeever portrays Mr. Visser, the one character he imagined. 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 he even struggles with himself over reporting their actions to the Nazis, knowing 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 play is Mr. Kraler, steadfastly played by Tom Wahl, a man who suddenly finds himself as the 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 essential for 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.

The well-known South Florida actor David Kwait makes a special appearance as Otto Frank in the play’s bittersweet coda, a flashback to about 1933 when he first meets and hires Miep. Kwait’s Frank brims with 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 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.

The entrance of Palm Beach Dramaworks. Photo By Palms West Journal

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 and the resounding church bell marking the passage of time to dramatic moments featuring 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, Koophuis and Miep listening. With that sound in the background Koophuis says 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 sobering moment for the audience, enhanced by 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 also sought out McKeever to write it and worked tirelessly with the PBD Workshop to perfect it. Hayes also directs 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 from the typical revival. Hayes leaves his imprint on the pacing and the integration of the technical elements and, with the playwright, explores a 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? 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 that should be required viewing.

"The People Downstairs" is playing at the Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach through Dec. 19.


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