Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Taut “Incident at Vichy” gives Sierra Madre Playhouse audiences much to ponder
Playwright Arthur Miller tends toward one elemental theme in his work. In “Death of a Salesman,” considered by many to be the greatest play written by an American, in his other major works like “All My Sons”, and in less well known pieces like “Incident at Vichy” the question is always about personal ethical choices, and the results they engender.
Now, at Sierra Madre Playhouse, a strong cast brings “Incident at Vichy” to vibrant life. The questions the play asks are singularly evocative in our own day, when everyone from businessmen to politicians dance to the pipings of power. In this examination of how Nazism managed its control, the acceptance of horror, the sense of powerlessness, and the balance of self-preservation and ethical rightness make for intense watching.
It is Vichy, France in 1942. The new capital of France’s puppet government under the Nazis, it is just beginning to see the effects of German racial attitudes which have already poisoned most of the rest of Europe. In a holding cell, a collection of (mostly) men somewhat randomly snatched off the streets waits each one’s turn for an inspection of identity papers.
It quickly becomes obvious that those who are Jewish will face a fate far different from those who are not. What then, is the responsibility of the doomed, if they are doomed? What is the responsibility of someone who is not Jewish and may be able to walk away? And what of the captors themselves – some German, some French? In what sense may they be caught in a web as well? What moral forces will define these people? Is there even a place for morality in this jaw-droppingly inhumane, yet bureaucratic quagmire?
To make this long one-act play work, every single person, from ones who appear briefly to those who stay on stage for the entire hour and a half, must be create a strongly individual character. This often proves an overwhelming demand for small, comparatively community-oriented theaters where the smallest parts are often handed to the best friend of the ticket taker, or someone’s available spouse – anyone who can walk on, say a line, and walk off without tripping or giggling. Not this time. From the guard who appears for mere moments to the elderly Austrian prince whose presence helps define the action from the first line to the last, each actor does a splendid job.
Of particular note are Davind Kieran, underplayed and thoughtful as the aforementioned prince, whose quick categorization of Nazis as uncivilized thugs unravels as the play proceeds, and Rick Knolla as the psychiatrist trying to analyze a larger framework for the devastation sweeping him away. Barry Saltzman’s intensely nervous, fussy painter proves most effective, as does Colin Campbell’s well-known actor desperately clinging to the idea that civilized people will, in the end, only treat each other in civilized ways.
Also excellent are Rendon Ramsey, as a socialist railroad electrician balancing fear and pride, Andy Harris as a rather fatalistic young boy, Zayd Jaber as a waiter startled to discover his captor is a favorite customer, and John Dimitri, briefly but recognizably pompous as a collaborating businessman. In almost wordless but nonetheless powerful portraits, Rebecca Rodick becomes very memorable as an aging gypsy woman, while Vance Wells evokes gentle despair as an elderly Orthodox Jew reciting the Kaddish as he awaits his doom.
As the German and French captors, Karyn O’Bryant’s “anthropological expert” vibrates with the certainty of a devout Nazi, while Matt Dodge, playing a German army major assigned to run this operation (but only until the SS arrives – he is a field officer, after all) becomes a portrait of a man subjugating personal beliefs to pride and a sense of inevitability. Brent Schindele, as the French captain glad to hand responsibility to others, and Aaron Jackson as the obsequious local cafe owner startled to discover his waiter among the detainees finish out the cast.
Because these individual portraits are all so clearly drawn by both the script and the cast, the arguments of the play become central. Director Barbara Schofield keeps the rhythm taut and naturalistic, and creates a great deal of realistic movement around a static space. Thus, what could have devolved into a costumed ethical discussion remains vibrant, thoughtful theater.
Nods also to set designer Don Bergmann, who along with Schofield has created a bleak, yet layered space which underscores the desperation while still allowing for adequate movement, and the sense of the unknown in that “next room,” so important to the play’s tension.
“Incident at Vichy” is powerful stuff, and though the ideals expressed are not unique to Miller, told with his flair for precision and heart the play leaves much for those who see it to chew over. When this piece originally opened on Broadway in 1964, it lasted for only 32 performances. Perhaps at that time people were too close to all the messages the individual characters have to share about individualism, about sense of powerlessness against oppression, even about the ability of Nazis to be otherwise nice people. Today it brings those messages to those who potentially share a different sense of the world, who may be ready to hear what Miller has been saying all along about the power of personal choice, even when all seems lost.
What: “Incident at Vichy” When: Through September 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors and students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org