By Monique Jones
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Michael McKeever is a raconteur of small miracles, dispelling the myth you can't create a self-contained, highly nuanced world of performance in the space of two hours.
Miami's own prolific playwright can deliver walloping polemic, drawing-room comedy, and satire roiling in a stew of symbolism usually in the course of a single act. His new show, Hand of God, is no exception.
Since his first play, That Sound You Hear, premiered in 1996, 43-year-old McKeever has created opus after opus, charming critics and spectators alike. He also snagged two South Florida Critics' Association Carbonell Awards for The Garden of Hannah List(1998), a reason-stretching thriller set in Nazi Germany; and Charlie Cox Runs with Scissors(2004), a fantasy farce in which Death delivers deadpan witticisms and Love is a bombshell in a red dress.
Hand of God, onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks Studio Theatre, provides slightly heavier fare, the action revolving around two priests whose faith is put to the ultimate test when one claims to have been visited by a revelation-toting saint.
During a recent phone call, McKeever chatted about staying busy, the problem with controlling playwrights, and the importance of not offending audiences at least not too much.
How has your work transformed since your first play?
While my earlier works were very simply structured comedies, I think I've developed a darker and hopefully more sophisticated style. There aren't any particular subjects I'm drawn to, but I love looking at history America or Paris in the Twenties, how the Holocaust came to be, or czarist Russia. I'm just fascinated at how an empire that lasted for three centuries could topple in a year. And I tend to write about conflicted individuals who have a sarcastic bent.
At least a couple of your plays Wait and See andHand of God contain themes of faith and the way ordinary people deal with the spiritual realm. Is that something you find compelling?
I like the beauty and majesty of religious icons. Being a lapsed Catholic, I'm familiar with the medley of images and metaphors from those beliefs. A wise teacher once told me years ago to write about what I know, and I believe when you deal with truth and write from truth, it makes for a better piece.
Tell us a bit more aboutHand of God.
The play takes a look at the concept of miracles and how we define that in present-day America. I wanted to write a play about how at a certain time in his life a son becomes his father. At the same time I wanted to explore what makes a miracle, and the way it transpired from the first to second draft was that the play became an investigation of hope and faith. Those two concepts are very different from each other, and Hand of God looks at that distinction.
The idea of theater that takes risks is something that's knocked around quite a bit, but for you, what does it mean to take risks with your work?
The older I get the more willing I am to take chances with more controversial subjects. My earlier pieces were lighter relationship dramas and comedies, but I've really been focusing on more topical plays over the last few years. I think it's great to take risks that's the way you discover new things but the danger is that a lot of young playwrights will take risks at the expense of the play itself or the audience. As long as the play is entertaining and vivid and there's electricity onstage, that's great. But there's a very fine line between taking risks and offending people. If folks are paying good money to see a show, I can't see how offending them benefits anybody.
Aside from writing, you have a lot of experience on the stage, as an actor and set designer. Where does the real magic happen onstage or when you're writing your characters into existence?
I'd have to say the best part of any production happens during the rehearsal process. As much as I love having a great director, and a brilliant cast that makes the audience laugh and feel moved by all the right parts, there's nothing better than being in the phase when you're first exploring. A good director finds things you didn't even know existed in your text, and you see the actors add so many nuances to the characters. The beauty about theater is that it's a cooperative effort, and when you have all the right people involved, it's magic to see that unfold.
Are there ever any issues about who gets creative control you or the director?
I'm one of the easiest playwrights in the world to work with. I realize that up until the week before the play goes up, it's still evolving. And being an actor, I understand how destructive it can be when you get direction from both the director and playwright. If something's really off with the script, I discuss it with the director but luckily it's never been an issue. I like drama on the stage, not off it!
What's the most challenging part when it comes to telling a believable story in an affected medium like theater?
It all goes back to the same thing. As long as it's real, I don't care how absurd or crazy the scenario at hand is. As long as it has some honesty and the ability to make someone really look at it and believe in that moment ... once you tackle that, all the technical stuff falls into place.