One of the great works of literature of the 20th century is The Diary of Anne Frank, a saga of courage and endurance in the form of a journal by a 14-year-old Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis with her family and others in a cramped Amsterdam attic. But what about those non-Jews in the office below who heroically risked their lives abetting these stowaways?
That is the story of The People Downstairs, Michael McKeever’s fictional history lesson commissioned by Palm Beach Dramaworks, where it can be seen in an involving world premiere production through Dec. 19. An intriguing idea, imaginatively rendered by South Florida’s most accomplished playwright, with further editing it could have a substantial life beyond here.
In that office of a kitchen goods export company are a handful of workers, all staunchly dedicated to keeping the Franks alive and in seclusion. All, that is, except a toadying underling named Visser (played with relish by McKeever) who would willingly turn in the secreted family if it meant saving his own hide.
Narrating the play and frequently stepping downstage to address the audience is Miep Gies (Amy Miller Brennan), a secretary who flinches every time the telephone rings and who brews a dreadful tasting drink of crushed acorns and molasses when there is no more coffee in all of Amsterdam. She will survive the war, entrusted with Anne’s diary, and will write her own account of events which became McKeever’s prime research source.
The first act of The People Downstairs is largely premise and preface, setting the scene and establishing the deadly stakes. As the – largely unseen – Nazis begin occupying Amsterdam, they scour the city and round up Jews to be slaughtered. The play comes alive in the second act, which covers the Franks’ second year of seclusion, as tensions increase, resources dwindle, loyalties are strained and the inevitability of being found out stares everyone in the face.
The inevitable does happen – a spoiler only to those few audience members unfamiliar with Anne Frank’s diary – followed by a series of endings which mars the play’s ultimate impact. McKeever would do well to choose one and delete the rest.
Still, The People Downstairs is a remarkable new play, covering well-known territory with a novel angle. Credit director William Hayes with the initial idea, with shepherding the script’s development through a two-year process and with staging the work artfully, avoiding its potential to feel static.
In a cast composed largely of Dramaworks regulars, Tom Wahl and Dennis Creaghan anchor the production as the office managers, while McKeever is a standout in a role he custom made for himself. But keep your eye on Brennan as Miep, an underplayed performance which is never less than compelling.
As Dramaworks’ return to live production, The People Downstairs is a reminder of why it is one of the prime companies in the region. And why McKeever has matured into a must-see writer regardless of the subjects he tackles.
THE PEOPLE DOWNSTAIRS. Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Dec. 19. $79. 561-514-4042, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.