With surgical precision, Miller's taut drama about the rounding up of Jews in occupied France during World War II pares away the comforts of detachment until we're left with an inexorable conclusion about universal complicity and responsibility for human tragedies like the Holocaust.
Ever-mounting dread is palpable in the nine detainees who wait in the anteroom of a makeshift interrogation facility. Questions about the authenticity of their identification papers are only a pretext--they soon realize they've been brought here to determine whether they're members of Nazi-desig-nated "inferior races."
Trying to downplay reports of death camps in Poland and freight trains with locks on the outside, each man projects his own reasonable interpretation on the situation. Some of their assumptions are painfully fatuous--an actor (David Carey Foster) who once toured Germany refuses to believe such an enlightened audience could condone the rumored atrocities.
Even the clearer-sighted prisoners make their own compromises with reality. An amiable artist (L on Huber) had left his hiding place for a walk even though he knew the danger, while the best-informed of the lot, a Marxist electrician (Tim O'Hare), lives his own life as a historical abstraction amid a larger class struggle.
Only a psychiatrist (David Rose) who studied in Vienna and observed the Nazis first-hand understands the hopelessness of the situation, but his efforts to rouse the group to resistance founder on individual excuses.
In microcosm, the group demonstrates the kind of paralysis that has played into the Nazis' hands all along, as an unlikely new prisoner-- an Austrian count (Todd Nielsen ) --points out. Though his ultimate release is assured -- he was detained only because the Nazis harass their own aristocracy the Count's agony at the vulgar excesses of his countrymen puts a human face on the enemy.
So does Silas Cooper as a military commander forced to preside over the ethnic cleansing--his crisis of conscience proves a harrowing descent into madness. The Nazis' genocide is revealed as an all-too-typical example of how we treat ''the other" on whom we project our fears--''Every man has his Jew," Miller warns, "even the Jews have their Jews."
In this well-cast ensemble, each performer convincingly renders the essence of his character, even in brief appearances--like the Sinister Professor (Charles Howerton) conducting the inquisition, or the enigmatic French Police Captain (Jackson Sleet) who summons each prisoner to the inner chamber with a laconic "Next." Jill Klein's astute costuming establishes each man's social station at a glance, while Gary Wissmann's deliberately shabby set (including an ominous wall-blackened furnace door in the rear) sets a tone of evil amid banality.
Though Miller's dialogue can be artificially focused at times, it brings breathtaking clarity and eloquence to a dizzying array of conflicting philosophies, qualities mirrored in Scott Segall's assured staging. Grim but not fatalistic, both playwright and director are in perfect sync in their call to look beyond the fraud of ideas and rationalizations, for only by. acknowledging our basest nature can we choose to behave otherwise.
Copyright 1995 Los Angeles
But thankfully for me, finally all the misplaced keys and late nights on sets and suddenly carsick companions gave up their collective efforts to thwart my viewing of this production and, simply, I am infinitely richer for it. And thankfully to you, Incident at Vichy has just been extended for the upteenth time, so it’s not too late for enrichment for you either (but hurry — tickets are at a premium).
Set in a dreary warehouse space transformed by German troops into a makeshift detention center in Vichy, France, in September, 1942, this powerful and passionate piece of theatrical literature — originally received with a surprisingly lukewarm response — is Miller at his best since Death of a Salesman.
As the Nazis begin their merciless power game of occupying France, an eclectic group of Vichy’s citizenry is swiftly and with near-surgical precision rounded up into the center to wait their turn in the warehouse’s office for personal "interviews" with an ominous set of German officials.
At first, the group believes the only function of this effort is a typical wartime check for forged papers, until a co-worker of a detained waiter is slipped a chilling piece of information heard over his delivery of the soldiers’ lunch; the shipping of discovered French Jew in boxcars to concentration camps — and the extermination of them all upon their arrival.
The surprise check of citizenry is not to examine papers, but instead to examine penises — the circumscribed are exported never to be heard from again, a deed so atrocious many of those gathered still could not believe such a thing could happen. "People," we’re told, "won’t believe they can be killed."
And as the group dwindles in number, still there are a few converts to the theory that their personal days might be numbered. "That is their power, to do the inconceivable," a character retaliates. "There is strength in their vileness . . . They are striving for the nobility in the totally vulgar."
Even for an audience some 50 years since the actual event occurred, the scenario is still hard to conceive. It is not until a tattered, horrified 13-year-old boy (a magnificently focused and tenderly realized performance by teenage newcomer Ben Gould) realizes he is sure to be carted away soon does the true shock of the deed begin to set in. In one of the play’s most haunting moments, he begs the non-Jewish Austrian Prince Von Berg (Todd Nielsen) to help his destitute family survive by delivering back to his mother the gold wedding band he was dispatched to sell before being so unceremoniously arrested.
Perhaps in less capable hands than those of director Scott Segall or featuring a less accomplished and tightly eloquent ensemble cast, Vichy could surely, like so many works by Miller, be painfully dry. But Segall keeps the static atmosphere charged with essential electricity and the actors grab the full charge of the coil and hold on for dear life.
Nielsen is especially magnificent as the genteel and noble Von Berg, a man so personally tortured by his inability to do something about the creep of Hitler that a furtive suicide attempt has darkened his recent past. Succeeding quietly without ever uttering a word is Stuart Lancaster as a perplexed old rabbi, whose sorrowful eyes reflect an entire world gone mad, and Robert Stephan Ryan is also affecting as the terrified waiter who thought the Nazi officers were his friends.
Also especially noteworthy in a truly remarkable cast is Tim O’Hare as a blue-collar worker ready to fight, David Rose as an increasingly more numbed psychiatrist and Gil Johnson as a young German officer appalled by his hideous assignment.
The Colony has long been heralded for its continuous excellence, but this fine ensemble effort of an important and often-overlooked American classic should have been on my list along with the Tamarind’s Hellcab as one of the top of last year — luckily, both productions survived well into 1996, so will surely be remembered in my TicketHolder Awards next year.
As we’re told by the amazing
Mr. Miller: "The agony will be repeated time and time again because it
cannot be shared." This is one story — and one brilliantly world class
retelling of it — no one should miss sharing.
Copyright 1995 Entertainment