In human history, few events have been as unfathomable, horrifying and massive in their impact as the Holocaust. The Nazis’ World War II annihilation of Jews, gays, gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners and countless others is an abominable tragedy with millions of victims – and millions of stories.
Playwright Dan Clancy tells one of those stories in The Timekeepers, a widely produced 2001 play getting its South Florida premiere as the season opener for Fort Lauderdale’s Island City Stage.
Clancy pairs disparate prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin to represent and illuminate the horror playing out all over Europe.
Inmate 1793 – his name is Benjamin (Michael McKeever), we eventually learn – is a Jewish horologist, a watchmaker and repairman torn from a happy life with his wife and two children. Inmate 9355, or Hans (Mike Westrich), is a pragmatic, self-preserving gay man whose lover managed to escape to Argentina.
Benjamin has found a small haven in the camp, a place closed off from ravenous dogs, sirens, gunshots and death. He has been assigned to repair watches and clocks confiscated from arriving prisoners. Quietly and methodically, Benjamin passes his endless days, lost in work and memory.
Then a brutal Capo (Matt Stabile), a criminal-turned-guard, shoves Hans through the door into Benjamin’s sanctuary. Wanting to escape the certain death that comes from being assigned to the camp’s cement factory or medical experimentation, Hans has sworn that he too is an expert at repairing watches, another self-preserving lie. In order to turn ruse into reality, he must convince Benjamin to turn teacher -- something the silent, hostile Benjamin has no intention of doing.
Under Michael Leeds’ sensitive, artfully detailed direction, McKeever and Westrich bring the two men -- so different, yet in the same dire situation -- to life. Each gives taunting, dehumanizing voice to the prejudices that landed the other in the camp. Both prove adept at bargaining for and swapping information. Over time, McKeever’s tender-hearted family man and Westrich’s charming hustler reveal guilt and regrets as they bond over a shared love of opera, though their passions in that regard are as divergent as everything else about them.
All three actors deliver compelling, effective performances: McKeever as an agonized family man, Westrich as cagey gay survivor and Stabile as the casually cruel, relentlessly bullying guard. Just as impressively, Island City Stage’s design team delivers some of the best work ever done in the intimate confines of the performance space at Empire Stage.
Michael McClain’s set encages the men in a small rectangle of wood and barbed wire, and Preston Bircher’s lighting suggests scorching summer and the unbearable cold of winter seeping through the slats of the makeshift walls. David Hart’s fine sound design supplies the menace outside those walls and the quick ticking of the watches, that rapid heartbeat marking the minutes, hours and days spent in a limbo between death and salvation. Peter A. Lovello’s costume design incorporates the Nazis’ prisoner symbols -- a yellow Star of David for Benjamin, a pink triangle for Hans, a green one for the Capo -- as well as the more casual attire that signals the Capo’s greater power.
Initially, The Timekeepers unfolds slowly, like the sluggish if tortuous passage of time at Sachsenhausen. But as Clancy reveals more and more about two men brought together by terrible fate and unimaginable inhumanity, The Timekeepers becomes a riveting window into one of history’s most shameful chapters.