Incident at Vichy
Incident at Vichy
March 16, 2009
Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy gets fresh legs at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre. The play was not widely admired when it debuted at Lincoln Center back in 1964, but with The Actors Company Theatre’s (TACT) new clear-eyed production, the play may at last get some overdue applause.
Incident at Vichy is Miller’s most compact play, and is classic in construction. No special effects, no scene changes, no expansive stretches of time. Still, the monocellular situation represented here is intellectually stimulating, and the emotional tangle of the characters’ lives gives rise to true drama. So the old adage rings true: less is more.
There is an austere intensity in the plot. The action opens in a detention room of a Vichy police station. It’s 1942, and 8 men have been picked up for questioning. Aside from their tense dialogue and occasional strolling in front of the station to relieve tension, the only real action is when the German guards take the men one-by-one inside the police office to be questioned and have their official documents checked.
This is an inside-the-whale story, a chilling enactment of how 8 men are thrust into the bowels of Nazi-occupied France, where they are tortured for being born Jews. No redemption is in sight. Worse, the men don’t fully understand why they are being detained at the station, or what unspeakable crime they may have unwittingly committed. And though they have heard rumors of the systematic executions at Auschwitz, they are in denial of the German Nazi’s ongoing genocide of the Jews.
The central character here is Von Berg (the superb Todd Gearhart), a Catholic Austrian prince who intensely despises the Nazis for their vulgarities and political crimes. Grabbed by the police when he was buying a newspaper, he now waits alongside the Jewish men—and one Jewish boy (Russell Kahn)—to have his official papers checked. Von Berg engages the men in philosophical debates about class and belief systems. While the Jews find it rather surprising that an aristocrat like Von Berg would be subjected to such a humiliating police search, he assures them that the Nazis find his aristocratic name abrasive and threatening to their German solidarity. Unpretentious and straightforward, the character Von Berg will eventually make a very powerful statement in the closing moments of the drama.
The other characters are interesting as well. There’s the painter Lebeau (Mark Alhadeff), the electrician Bayard (Ron McClary), the businessman Marchand (James Prendergast), the doctor Leduc (Christopher Burns), to mention a few. True, they seem more like symbolic types than real flesh-and-blood human beings. And perhaps the author drew them in broad strokes to represent the faceless thousands doomed to death in Poland.
Incident at Vichy takes on the quality of a parable, and Miller—as he is wont to in his dramas-- asserts himself here as a moralist. Without hitting us over the head with a message, the work has a sure-fire way of getting you where you live.
Ironically, critics back in 1964 somehow felt that Incident at Vichy was a wrong direction for the established playwright, and felt that he should have been following the “line” of earlier works like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. But under the scorching direction of Scott Alan Evans, this new production emphasizes the idea of what men owe each another, which ultimately makes for a very provocative evening of theater.
Set designer Scott Bradley is able to communicate the stone and iron grimness of Fascist force in Incident in Vichy. He even etches in the realism of grimy glass windows and 2 plain-looking benches in the station. Light designer Mary Louise Geiger has suspended 4 metallic lights from the ceiling that create a cold institutional feel to the entire surroundings. What we see before our eyes, in fact, is an organized calamity.
The play demands an ensemble effort. And the pliable acting of the entire cast is commendable. Only the character Von Berg is larger than life. And, fortunately, Gearhart rises to the occasion and meets the incredible challenges of his part. Aside from Von Berg, however, no role is meant to delineate an extraordinary person.
Undoubtedly, Incident at Vichy comes down on the side of the angels. The imperative of individual responsibility shines through and altogether warms the soul. Von Berg’s unexpected choice may be second guessed. But it won’t be forgotten.