Produced by Redtwist Theatre, Chicago
An Examination of People on the Brink of Destruction
Few companies have been more attentive than Red Twist to commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of Arthur Miller’s birth, and tenth anniversary of his death. Earlier this year they revived The American Clock, his adaptation of Studs Terkel’s oral histories, and now, they’re mounting his 1964 Holocaust drama Incident at Vichy. Miller wrote the play in between After the Fall and The Price, which Timeline just closed a magnificent production of. After the Fall was a massive work, set in the shadow of a concentration camp guard tower, but was more about Miller’s disillusionment with communism and Marilyn Monroe than an attempt to reconcile with the legacy of the Holocaust. In contrast, Incident at Vichy is short, and consists of debating between French prisoners of the collaborator regime. But even with as much political philosophy as this play contains, it’s as intense a psychological drama as any on the American stage.
It is Vichy, 1942. Germany has not yet taken over the free zone, but Jewish residents are increasingly feeling Nazi oppression. The set is little more than two benches in between alley-style seating, and on them sit seven men who have been arrested without being told why. They sit in frightened silence until one, the painter Lebeau (Matt Browning), agitatedly begins speculating and begging everyone for information. A well-dressed businessman, Marchand (Michael Sherwin), stiffly supposes it’s a routine inspection of their papers, and makes clear he thinks being seen with the others could make him suspicious by association. But Labeau says the French doctor (Devon J. Nimerfroh) presiding over things measured his nose, implying this is a racial round-up. One of the men being held is a gypsy (Daniel Mozurkewich), but, the men argue among themselves, he may be an actual criminal, and nobody is aware of racial laws being implemented in France. At least, not officially. They’ve all heard rumors to the contrary.
Soon, three more prisoners are shoved in, and things are unquestionably very bad. One of the new arrivals is the Austrian Prince Von Berg (Jeremy Trager). The others are a cynical psychologist who had been hiding in the countryside, Leduc (Tim Parker), and an elderly Orthodox man (Tom Lally) who doesn’t seem to speak any French. The other prisoners marvel that he didn’t even bother to shave his beard, but Von Berg gives away that it is obvious that all of them except himself and the gypsy are Jewish. The prisoners’ panic spikes when Marchand is called in, only to drop again when he is almost immediately released. However, as they are called in one by one, and no more return, their anxiety continues to rise. In an attempt to figure out what’s happening and what they should do, they pool their knowledge, but only wind up arguing over how to interpret the rumors they’ve heard, based on their suppositions about the political workings of Nazism and the Vichy regime, while their numbers continue to dwindle.
It’s a play that is especially dependent on its performers, and director Ian Frank has picked a marvelous team. Much of the earlier part of the play is driven by Browning and David Giannini in the role of Bayard, an electrician and communist who heard distinctly human noises coming from inside boxcars at the train station. Browning’s jittery delivery contrasts with Giannini’s put-on air of defiance. Another prisoner, the actor Monceau (Jim Morley), warns Bayard that his mask isn’t quite convincing enough. Among a brilliant cast, Morley is especially immersed in his character, for his character is deeply immersed in denial. Having made his livelihood by performing for Germans, Monceau believes he can shrug off their hostility by behaving in a controlled, polite manner, but that it’s unreasonable to believe highly cultured people are capable of atrocities. This triggers a debate on whether the Nazis actually are cultured, or will simply pull down Monceau’s pants when he is called in for inspection.
We are ultimately presented with two verbal duels. One, between Von Berg and Bayard, focuses on the specifics of the political situation which brought Hitler to power—are the German and French proles being exploited, and to what degree are they complicit? The other, between Von Berg, Bayard, and Leduc, focuses on ethics more broadly, and whether people are naturally co-operative or destructive. I know it’s not to everybody’s taste, but I find Miller’s handling of these dialogues fascinating. The characters aren’t just sitting around talking, they’re getting in increasingly dangerous confrontations with the French and German authorities while making plans for their separate escapes, and their outlooks shape their plans for survival. The fanatically racist professor and German army major (Jeremy Pfaff) also turn on each other, creating an even more multi-faceted conflict, with gunfire involved.
Redtwist’s production brings out Incident at Vichy’s full dramatic potential. Daniel Friedman’s dim lighting makes the tiny storefront uncomfortable from the beginning, and Ray Rehberg’s mysterious sonic landscape heightens the horror further. Trager’s performance as Von Berg captures his Noël Coward-like wit (along with a fabulous costume by Clare McKellaston), and his underlying dismay and terror. Von Berg has a few lines, including one about his discomfort with women, which imply he may actually belong to a persecuted demographic. Frank has exploited these to make the situation still more dangerous: many of the prisoners were counting on Von Berg being released without too much trouble. Still, Von Berg is the most powerful of a group in extreme danger, and he and Leduc have a crucial moral choice to make. In this company’s hands, whatever clumsiness Miller’s dialogue may have suffered from in the late nineteen-forties is gone now. This is eighty-five minutes of heated, engrossing psychological conflict.
Reviewed November 21, 2015
This show has been Jeff recommended.
For more information, see Incident at Vichy’s page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W Bryn Mawr, Chicago. Tickets are $30-35 with discounts for students and seniors; to order, call 773-728-7529 or visit redtwist.org. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3:00 pm through January 10. Running time is eighty-five minutes with no intermission.