These days, with the country and the world in such turmoil, the conversation about humanity’s obligation to speak out or act against evil has a fresh urgency. That context makes the world-premiere production of Michael McKeever’s “The Camp” feel all the more timely.
Produced by the West Boca Theatre Company at the Levis JCC’s Sandler Center in Boca Raton, the play features its Carbonell Award-winning author in a key role, and it’s a bold one: His character is emblematic of people who stay silent in the face of atrocities.
Set in a small German town called Frohstadt during the last days of World War II, “The Camp” unfolds in the commandeered office of Mayor Kessel (McKeever). Capt. Franklin Payne (Bill Schwartz) is restlessly leading his American troops toward Berlin, but his superiors keep ordering detours, such as the one that has him investigating an abandoned salt mine outside this little Bavarian Forest town.
Kessel is cordial and infinitely accommodating to Payne and his troops, until the Americans make a gruesome discovery: Five miles outside of Frohstadt is a concentration camp with several hundred prisoners, many dead, others barely alive. The mayor claims ignorance.
Payne requests that an English-speaking prisoner be brought in for questioning (though Payne’s aide David Silverman, played by Todd Bruno, speaks fluent German). The prisoner, a suffering and emotionally deadened Evelyn Schumann (Jeni Hacker), slowly and softly tells a chilling tale that contradicts the mayor’s protestations of ignorance and utter innocence.
Director Michael Leeds and the play’s strong cast fully explore the explosive story that takes place onstage and elsewhere. McKeever’s words paint a horrific picture of inhumanity and passive complicity by fearful “ordinary” people.
Schwartz, who started acting again after retiring from a long career as spokesman for the Miami Police Department, is ideally suited to play a career military man. Tall and fit, his Payne is gruff, outspoken, cagey and abundantly capable of sudden violence.
In playing Kessel, McKeever must speak some German as well as German-accented English, both of which he does well. As playwright and actor, he creates a character who is anxious to placate and avoid trouble with the Americans, which was also his style in dealing with the Nazis. He comes across as utterly sincere when Kessel denies any guilt on the part of himself, his family and his fellow citizens, driving home the play’s message.
Hacker, whose Evelyn also speaks English with a persuasive German accent, gives a performance that is chilling in its quiet power. As Silverman, Bruno speaks not only rapid-fire German but Aramaic as he recites the Kaddish prayer for the dead. Daniel Llaca, playing young soldier Alan Carter, represents the horror felt by those who discovered the unimaginable when they liberated the camps.
The production team — set designer Jodi Dellaventura, lighting designer Dean Landhuis, costume designer Jerry Sturdefant and sound designer David Hart — have worked together seamlessly to create an atmosphere that underscores the play’s dark themes. The space itself, however, is tricky. Essentially a multipurpose room with a stage, the theater’s acoustics aren’t the greatest, and some in the audience clearly strain to understand the soft-spoken Hacker and the rapid-fire dialogue delivered by Schwartz.
“The Camp” runs a taut 75 minutes, and though a few of its word choices are anachronistic (Payne sarcastically calls Silverman “Miss Manners,” for example, though that etiquette column didn’t start until more than 30 years after the war’s end), the play’s impact is thought-provoking and powerful. McKeever’s message is hardly new, but it’s true: Staying silent and doing nothing in the face of inhumanity do not obviate guilt.
“The Camp” runs through Dec. 17 at the Adolph and Rose Levis Jewish Community Center’s Sandler Center, 9801 Donna Klein Blvd., in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $30-$40. To order, call 561-558-2520 or go to LevisJCC.org.