The People Downstairs, which is playing at Dramaworks until this December 19, isn’t the first play about the Holocaust I’ve come across in my reviewing days, nor even the first I’ve come across this season.
But I don’t know that there will ever stop being a need to revisit in drama this darkest period of our history. My personal connection to the subject matter aside (my maternal grandmother escaped from Austria on the Kindertain and two of my great-great grandparents perished in concentration camps), what is theatre but an attempt to understand the unfathomable—and how could the Holocaust ever begin to be fathomed?
So, The People Downswtairs takes the unique angle of focusing not on those whose identity put them in the direct line of Nazi wrath but on the group of ordinary German business people who heroically risked their own lives and well-being to hide those people away.
Amy Miller as Miep, Bruce Linser as Henk and Michael McKeever as Mr. Visser.
The play takes place entirely in the Travies and Company office, where its workers try to go about their business as usual while the world collapses around them and Anne Frank doggedly writes in her diary in the attic over their heads.
Though the omnipresent threat of this central secret’s discovery provides the story with instant dramatic stakes, the play’s setting also has the effect of locating most of its action and conflict outside of the bounds of the play itself, with most of its events being merely heard or conversed about rather than more properly portrayed.
I admit that this quality of the show did make its first act a little tedious, as even director William Hayes’s admirable efforts to busy the characters with office stage business didn’t quite have the effect of making the goings-on truly compelling.
However, in Act 2, as tensions continue to heighten, the story becomes significantly more engaging. Top-notch production values set the scene for Tom Wahl, Dennis Creaghan, Michael Mckeever, and Bruce Linser to give striking performances as four “ordinary” men who hold down the fort and fast to their principles even in the face of unprecedented obstacles.
Amy Miller as Miep and Bruce Linser as Henk.
But it’s Amy Miller Brennan who’s the real heart of the play in the role of Miep Gies. Miep serves as the play’s narrator and makes us privy to her thoughts during a few fourth-wall breaking monologues, one of the welcome touches of theatricality that elevate the well-crafted script beyond a mere retelling.
Anecdotes that emerge from these asides highlight the pain of living in such brutal and uncertain times, and of trying to hold onto optimism and humanity when both are in short supply. For instance, Miep remembers being able to summon a shred of hope as she decorates a cake with the words “Peace in 1944”—before remembering that she baked just such a cake in hopes of “Peace in 1943.”
But, as most of us know, it was not until 1945 that the allied forces finally put an end to Hitler’s regime, and the fate of Anne Frank and most of her family was tragically sealed long before that deliverance ever came to pass.
Somehow, the fact that we all more or less know what’s coming makes the big moment no less suspenseful when it does finally arrive, or the aftermath any less wrenching. As could be attested to by the tear-stained mask with which I left the theatre, it would take a heart of stone to remain unmoved by the events that transpire and by the emotional epilogue Miep takes us through afterward.
As Miep reminds us, though the sacrifices that she and her coworkers made could not prevent the unthinkable, they did at least ensure that Anne Frank’s remarkable legacy would live on, a pearl of redemption amidst a sea of loss. Thanks to the work of playwright Michael
McKeever and the vision of Dramaworks’ William Hayes, who also commissioned The People Downstairs , now Miep too will get to stay “alive” in an audiences’ imagination for as long as the play runs.
The People Downstairs is also an interesting follow-up to Dramaworks’ pre-pandemic premiere of Ordinary Americans, which also centered on characters who stood up for others who were being wrongly persecuted even at great personal cost. Both shows seem designed to make us ponder the question: if it were us being asked to wager our futures, would we be strong enough to stand our ground?
God-willing, most of us will never have to find out, but in another sense, it’s a question we all must ask each other constantly, whenever a fork in the road emerges between what is right and what is convenient. So here’s to a beautiful reminder that righteousness will always be worth something if only in its remembrance, no matter how bleak the world around us may grow….and here’s to peace in 2022.