Michael J. Tobin, executive artistic director of Footlights Theatre, says, “Not all theatre can be happy, funny and full of musical numbers.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

FALMOUTH — A community theater in Falmouth has received 11 hate calls since it began production of a Holocaust-themed play last week.

Michael J. Tobin, executive artistic director of Footlights Theatre, described the phone calls as vile and hateful, but not threatening. “I had one woman tell me, ‘I don’t want to see a play about those (expletive) Jews,” Tobin said Friday night as he and the cast prepared for another performance of “APPELL: The Other Side of the Fence.”

It’s a new play by first-time playwright Anne Drakopolous, who adapted it from personal accounts, poems, stories and memories of Holocaust survivors. Among the survivors portrayed in the play are Kurt and Sonja Messerschmidt of Portland, who married in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1944, survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States, settling in Portland in 1951. Kurt Messerschmidt died in September, and Sonja died in 2010.

Tobin sent an email Thursday to patrons and supporters detailing some of the calls. “I need people to know this is happening,” he said. “It’s not an open invitation to hate again.”

People attending the play and actors involved in it expressed outrage and surprise on Friday night.

“Are you serious? That just surprises me. I really thought we were past that,” said Josie DiPhilippo, a student from the University of Southern Maine, who was unaware of media reports that the theater had been targeted.

“It’s sad there are people out there in this day and age who still feel this way,” said Carolyn Thomas of Falmouth, who attended with her partner, Jennifer Curran. Their daughter, Meghan Scott Curran, performs in the play. “The political environment we’re in right now seems to make it OK to express those opinions,” Thomas said.

Jackie Oliveri, an actress who portrays Sonja Messerschmidt, echoed that dismay. “A part of me can’t believe it. This is Maine. In Maine, you don’t run into that kind of hate. But this is a different political climate now, and it’s OK to hate,” she said.

Phyllis McQuaide, left, Ann Foskett Miller, Cheryl Reynolds, Victoria Machado, Jackie Oliveri and Pam Mutty in “APPELL: The Other Side of the Fence.” Photo by Cooper Caron

She is proud to be involved in a play that tells the stories of Holocaust survivors, who overcame hate and whose stories serve as inspiration for others facing oppression. “I’m honored to play Sonja Messerschmidt,” Oliveri said. “Her message is one of hope, and that’s what I try to hold on to.”

Tobin said most of the calls have come from women, and based on the timbre of their voices, he thinks most of them were older women. One man who called told Tobin the Holocaust never happened.

“I tried to talk to him. I want to engage. I want to know why they feel the way they do, but they don’t want to talk about it,” he said.

He received two calls in September, when he announced that Footlights would produce the play. By the time it opened on March 8, the theater had received five calls, and six more have come in since the opening, he said. No one has left a message. In each instance, Tobin has talked directly with the person making the call, he said.

While the calls have been troubling, they reaffirm his belief that doing the show was a good idea, he said. “This show is about survivors. It’s inspirational. You listen to these people and hear about how they overcame such horrific circumstances,” he said.

The play, which runs through March 24, centers on a small group of Holocaust prisoners who tell their stories while waiting outside for roll call.

Carolyn Thomas and Jennifer Curran of Falmouth speak Friday night about the hate calls that Footlights Theatre has received since it opened a Holocaust-themed play last week. Thomas said, “It’s sad there are people out there in this day and age who still feel this way.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

David Greenham, program director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, located in Augusta, said he’s not surprised that the show has provoked a negative response.

“There is a great divisiveness in our country right now, not only anti-Semitism but anything that is considered different,” he said.

The Anti-Defamation League reported this month that anti-Semitic incidents increased by 57 percent in the U.S. last year, the highest number that the organization has recorded in more than two decades.

The ADL said the sharp rise includes 952 vandalism incidents, an increase of 86 percent from 2016. The group also counted 1,015 incidents of harassment, a 41 percent increase from 2016.

ADL national director and CEO Jonathan Greenblatt told The Associated Press that the “alarming” increase appears to be fueled by emboldened far-right extremists as well as the “divisive state of our national discourse.”

Greenham said he doesn’t think the feelings expressed by the callers are new, but that it seems like people are more willing to be open about those feelings.

“It’s a tremendous test for our democracy and our understanding of the First Amendment,” he said. “For me, I feel like it’s bad when people express opinions that are hateful, but I would rather see that than seeing them just silently hold opinions. If they are open about it, then conversations can be had that move things forward.”

In his email, Tobin characterized the calls as “filled with such hate, denial and uneducated judgment.”

Tobin wrote that the play is difficult to watch but said that’s the point.

“Look, not all theatre can be happy, funny and full of musical numbers. We need to do important theatre like this. We must do important theatre like this,” he wrote. “And I (and the cast) are very proud of APPELL and all it brings to the stage, to our patrons and to the memories of those that lived it, survived it and died because of it.”

Marty Pottenger of Portland came to the theater Friday night to hear the stories of survivors. She attended an opening at the Maine Jewish Museum last week, watched eight films as part of the Maine Jewish Film Festival during the week, and capped her week off by attending “APPELL: The Other Side of the Fence.”

She said she had no time or space for hate in her life. “I am here for the power of love,” she said.

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