Incident at Vichy
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 12, 2009
Don't you just hate people who are always complaining? Those folks who just can't let go of the past? Who still talk about how eight and a half years ago, Bush "stole" the election? C'mon, there's no DEFINITIVE proof of that, and besides, politics can get dirty. And haven't we heard enough about the missing WMDs and that Downing Street Memo? You don't impeach a leader in a time of war, and besides, what's done is done. And can you believe that there's a growing number of idiots who think that 9/11 was perpetrated by the United States itself?! Good God, governments just don't do such things!
Incident at Vichy, Arthur Miller's quick deep stab of a play, reminds us that the Implausible is far from being impossible. Ten men wait in a detention room in Nazi-occupied Vichy, France, trying to understand why they've been picked up and where they may possibly be sent. It seems like just a routine document check, though a few wonder if this may have something to do with being Jewish—but not all of them are Jewish, so as long as one's papers are in order, everything should be fine. There is the rumor that Jews are being taken by train to camps where they are thrown into ovens, but that is absolutely unthinkable, and so it would never happen. There is the suggestion that since there are several able-bodied men, but only one guard at the door, escape is possible. But why risk your life like that? If you just follow the orders, no one will get upset and everything will go smoothly.
Each work of art that addresses the Holocaust asks, "How could this have happened?" Miller's concern here is not the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but the obedience—the mental and moral contortions—of the victims of, and witnesses to, this Crime To End All Crimes (If Only). Each character is a philosophical archetype and Miller, with patience and respect, lets them run their course, reach a dead end, and even attempt to vault themselves over that terminal wall. These men—seeing themselves as worldly and wise—would rather take their chances than change their minds.
The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) could not have picked a more relevant play for this damaged and distracted country where the most popular form of protest seems to be joining a sassy-named group on Facebook. Director Scott Alan Evans is at the helm of a stirring and stinging production that puts nothing in the way of the play itself. An extraordinary ensemble of 15 men share three benches—some, such as the Old Jew (John Freimann) and the Gypsy (Leif Huckman) sit in terrified silence; others, such as the painter Lebeau (Mark Alhadeff), can talk as much as the Federal Reserve prints currency, the value of his words decreasing with each breath. But every figure in this powerfully understated revival makes a distinct impression.
However, Incident at Vichy is not nihilistic, not even a tragedy in and of itself, but a prelude to a morally catastrophic event: engineered by few, but accomplished by so many who could fathom no alternative. Near the end, Miller does proffer a solution in the form of a knee-jerk gesture of human decency that ultimately makes this play vital—and heartbreaking—theatre: waking us up from our political automatization, and reminding us that our patriotism is not a bed, but a garden.