- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 26, 2000

Scarcely anything new can be said about the Holocaust, and one suspects that was true when Arthur Miller wrote "Incident at Vichy" in1964.
This leaves little untrod ground for a production of "Vichy" by the Washington Shakespeare Company and the Washington Jewish Theatre.
The Holocaust is the defining evil of the 20th century in the popular mind, though it was not the worst slaughter in total numbers. (Mao Tse-tung's "Great Leap Forward" and Josef Stalin's purges exceeded it.) Cemented by the outpouring of books, movies, plays and documentaries on the subject, it has been seared into our consciousness.
The two theaters thus undertook a real challenge when they decided to stage "Vichy," which is not even one of Mr. Miller's most important works.
The action unfolds in a large detention room in Vichy, the capital of the puppet government in occupied France. No scene changes or intermission breaks the mood. The police have detained nine men and a boy on suspicion that they have forged documents to hide their Jewishness. They are being called in one by one to face an examination by Professor Hoffman (Maura McGinn), a "scientist" schooled in "racial anthropology."
As they wait their turns, the characters try to sort out the reasons they were snatched from their daily lives. Some of them suspect they are going to be deported to work camps in Poland; others argue that they simply are having their papers checked. The German major overseeing the operation may be Jewish, and he clearly dislikes his assigned duties, which include watching his servant's deportation.
The first part of the play is dominated by LeBeau (Michael Laurino), an artist, and Bayard (Tim Marrone), an electrician. Bayard's faith in a socialist future dominated by the working class is challenged by LeDuc (Daniel Ladmirault), a Freudian psychologist who is suspicious of any ideology that purports to improve the lot of man.
As the characters are peeled off to face their fates, the play's central conflict is revealed: between the bitter cynicism of LeDuc and the thin hope of Prince von Berg (Jon Cohn). Von Berg, an Austrian nobleman inadvertently seized during the search for Jews, is repulsed by the Nazis but has no idea how to act against them.
Despite the foreboding that dominates the plot, the production never achieves the sense of physical fear for which it strives. The early arguments between LeBeau and Bayard seem to come out of nowhere. They set the emotional tone, which does not change much throughout the play's 100 minutes. A tension-breaking moment toward the end, when LeDuc and von Berg are the only ones remaining, seems forced and unnecessary.
LeDuc, on the verge of condemnation, tries to convince von Berg that "ideals are excuses for killing people" and that somehow von Berg is complicitous in the Holocaust because … well, we're not really sure why. LeDuc tries to get von Berg to admit that a small part of him is glad for the persecution of the Jews, that the Nazis are doing his will. For his part, von Berg concedes that the world has almost no good people and that good people are not in charge, but the world is not completely bad.
This is Arthur Miller at his most untenable and inscrutable. The script offers no evidence that von Berg harbors resentment toward the Jews. To the contrary, he sheltered three Jewish musicians in his home before the Nazis took them.
The direction by Benjamin Fishman brings clarity and nuance to the difficulties of "Vichy." Mark K. Anduss' sound, used to punctuate mood shifts, also is appropriately creepy. The set is constructed from skeletal boards that show what's happening behind the walls and give the proceedings an understated and forbidding flavor.
Although "Incident at Vichy" has some serious shortcomings, the theater companies did not fail this play. The playwright failed them.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide