In its move to the center stage, Michael McKeever’s new play, The People Downstairs, is proof that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
What a way for Palm Beach Dramaworks to start the season. Though its start came two months after its usual schedule, the wait was well worth it. The People Downstairs’ ironic theme finds the perfect setting and timing, as it tells the story of a group of Dutchmen and women who became heroes in their quest to protect the Frank Family and others by hiding them from the Nazis, circa 1940. As history shows and this play exposes exquisitely, it is the people who were downstairs—in the homes and in the offices—that were as much in danger as the ones in the attics.
The play begins in 1942, with the social upheaval set by Germany, which had invaded the Netherlands on May 10, 1940. Hitler had installed a civil Nazi regime that had placed more of a burden on the citizens of the country, rather than on its military. As a result, their brutal persecution of Jews was relentless, and the Dutch civil service and police were willing collaborators, raiding the city day and night.
It is the play’s first scene’s haunting dialogue, brilliantly performed by Amy Miller Brennan (Miep, one of the Dutch office workers), that sets the tone and stirs the senses:
“They’re in. They’re up there. The goal now is: keep them alive. Down in the office, the clock ticks away. It is almost noon. The raid has continued all morning . . . “
Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes says it best: “The timing of telling this story has only become increasingly relevant with what has been going on in our country.” Hayes alludes to the rise of hate crimes and Semitism in our country against Asians, Muslims, Christians, blacks, and whites, causing fear, hate, and rage. But unfortunately, just like in World War II, this political propaganda is not just happening here at home, as it is cleverly set by Media conglomerates, higher powers, governments, educational systems, and even influencers throughout the world.
The play sends an important message of protecting those who are being persecuted and doing the right thing by standing up for them, even in the line of fire. It’s the story Hayes had in mind for some time, yet he hadn’t identified the playwright immediately, he says.
“I knew Michael was someone I wanted to talk to, so we met one night and I pitched him the idea,” says Hayes. McKeever responded with tremendous enthusiasm so Hayes knew that he was the one for the job. Though it had been many years since they had worked together, they each knew how the other one worked. “Go write!” It’s all Hayes said to McKeever at the end of their conversation. And what McKeever has done is nothing but a lucid companion to an intimate revival of the classic stage adaption of the posthumously published 1947 book The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
The Diary of Anne Frank premiered on Broadway at the Cort Theatre in 1955, and its script also formed the basis of the 1959 film adaptation. It featured Hermine “Miep” Gies, who was one of the Dutch citizens who hid Anne Frank; her father, Otto Frank; sister, Margot Frank; mother, Edith Frank-Hollander, and four other Dutch Jews from the Nazis in an annex above Otto Frank’s business premises during World War II.
The historical figures in this production play key roles in the drama, particularly Brenna’s portrayal of Miep, who died in 2010 at 100 years of age. According to Brennan, her preparation for this role started way back before she was an actor. As most of us have, she read The Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school, and then years later as she studied abroad, she was able to visit the annex where the Frank family hid from the Nazis. Anne’s story had always fascinated her, and so she jumped at the chance to play Miep, the woman who protected the young girl and her family for almost three years. As an adult, having lived more and experienced more, particularly as a mom, playing Miep also brought to light the fear and loss, and the sense of protection these characters must have felt over the lives of innocent people who endured so much suffering and pain, for so long.
The People Downstairs is as much a play as a cry for help—to unite, to reawaken love, compassion, understanding, and truth, above all else. It’s a human call for action against the increasing dark forces becoming more heartless, violent, and brutal. In WWII, that force had a face—Nazi/Hitler. And what face do we see today?
In the last act, Miep’s parting words give you that answer: “Fear. Hate. You see yourself under the weight of a world gone mad. And yet, inside you, there is a resolve. As the body falls apart, the spirit develops a natural callous. It is equal parts perspective, strength, courage, and peace.”
McKeever’s The People Downstairs is nothing if not an entrancing, smart play about power and hate, and about betrayal, survival, and the human condition. It cautions us against violent social change and alerts our conscience by not having the delusion that we can do no harm if we don’t take part in wrongdoing.
For showtimes and tickets, visit https://www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
The People Downstairs Cautions Against Violent Social Change