Having spent some a time a couple of days ago in the company of a group of women in France during World War 2 (Little Wars) it seemed right to redress the gender balance by doing the same with a company of men. It also being the first day of #Lockdown2 something with a claustrophobic atmosphere seemed somehow appropriate. Arthur Miller’s 1964 play Incident At Vichy fitted the bill in all areas and as a bonus it is a play which I have never seen. This production was performed at the Signature Theatre in New York in 2015 to celebrate the centenary of Miller’s birth.
The play is not performed that often and with a cast of nearly 20 men that is probably not surprising. The setting is a disused factory in the southern half of France where Germany, at least technically, has no sway but a compliant government is allowing their policies to proceed. A number of men have been rounded up so that their papers can be checked. It soon becomes clear that this has happened because they are (or are suspected of being) Jewish. One by one each of the men are taken into a side room to be “interviewed”; very few return the same way. Rumours of trains running to death camps abound (the play is set before the full horror of the Holocaust became known) and the men’s various reactions range from fight to flight.
As critics have noted the play is necessarily one sided – the extermination policies are indefensible and any audience would find the advancement of such an argument intolerable. While this is far from questionable it does lead to a rather flat piece of drama as it removes any sense of conflict over the proposed ideologies. Instead Miller has to examine the tension between proposed action as embodied by the psychiatrist Leduc (Darren Pettie) and inaction advocated by the actor Monceau (Derek Smith). The latter has fled Paris where he has been playing the lead in Cyrano; ironically his own character is less prepared to take positive action. Meanwhile Leduc is clearly the embodiment of Miller’s own views and comes to be the central figure by default as all the others are systematically hauled away to meet their fate. The final scene between him and the mistakenly arrested Austrian aristocrat Von Berg (Richard Thomas) introduces some real tension and the last twist in the tale will blindside you if you don’t know what is coming.
The ensemble acting is of high quality especially as some of the actors have very little to do for great swathes of the play. Memorable turns come from David Abeles as a terrified waiter, Jonny Orsini as the nervy artist LeBeau and Alex Morf as the firebrand Communist Bayard. The German characters are rather more one dimensional but then we only tend to see them briefly and as the agents of misfortune for the detainees. Director Michael Wilson keeps the tension levels high and orchestrates the arguments/counter arguments well but in the end the play reduces the arguments to a series of set speeches more akin to a political debate than piece of drama. It might also have helped to create a more claustrophobic atmosphere – Jeff Cowie’s set is rather too airy to give a real sense of oppression. That said, the trains rumbling past at the end (sound by John Gromada) are a chilling masterstroke as we remember the characters that have been hauled away earlier in the play. Also very effective are the figures seen in silhouette as the “interviews” proceed in the side room.
Incident At Vichy is an interesting play but not, alas, one of Miller’s greatest. It is, however, a good insight into the mindset of America’s most feted post war playwright and throws a particularly personal light on his feelings about how mankind treats others. As we await the USA election results it would make a timely watch for those, whoever they are, about to be in power.
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