A rail thin man, crippled in the war, is serving out his last few years commanding a small garrison in Vichy, France. He takes breakfast at the local café, makes small talk with the waiter, and dutifully awaits his retirement.
And then the Nazi’s who rule the puppet regime begin rounding up townsfolk, dragging them to his station, where they await deportation to extermination camps in Poland.
It is wrong, the major knows, but like the suspected Jews, he is caught in the vise.
Have you ever sympathized with a Nazi?
That seems like a heretical question, especially in these days when cancel culture rules both the left and the right.
That the Head Trick Theater produced Arthur Miller’s play, Incident at Vichy is a testament to the power of theater.
That you probably didn’t hear about it is a sign of the times. During the talkback at the closing performance, director Rebecca Maxfield quipped, “It’s challenging to market something like this. You can’t call it a feel-good play.”
No, you can’t.
Over the past few years, I’ve seen countless plays that attempt difficult and political questions. Most of them have itineraries and agendas – show the inequality, show the human cost, show the victim, show the oppressor, show the turning of power, show the triumph (or defeat).
Most of these plays were rants. The actors played caricatures rather than characters. Sometimes this can work in a Brechtian way – rather than getting caught up in the emotional drama, the audience remains detached and aware, allowing it to make intellectual observations and choices. More often than not, I felt manipulated and assaulted.
The actors in Incident at Vichy could have played the types that Miller wrote – the starving artist, the shiftless gypsy, an arrogant actor, the communist electrician, the bearded religious Jew.
But when the audience walked into the theater, the Incident was already in progress. A lineup of people shifted on stage, waiting judgement.
We took our seats, chit-chatted, checked in on social media, and waited for the “play” to start. They’re actors. We’re the audience. Look, a cat picture on Instagram!
But the clock is already ticking. The characters’ questions are the same as ours, “Who will live? Who will die? Do we have any control or power or responsibility? How will we be judged?”
The terrified painter, Lebeau, begins at a full rave, decrying the injustice of going for a walk, and then having his nose measured by a stranger. “Are you Peruvian?” he asks, making a joke of the euphemism.
For a while, it seems as if Miller’s play will become mired in tirade. Every single character is certain that she or he is right, and that this fact deserves acknowledgement, respect, and ultimately freedom.
The Nazis, although largely off stage, disagree. They allow their victims to make arguments both for and against their own survival.
And moment by moment, the humanity begins to emerge.
The artist could have fled to America, but his mother was too attached to their heirloom furniture.
The Roma (gypsy) is accused of theft by the same people who are about to be judged themselves. He is among the first to be taken into the back room, followed by the sound of a beating
Will a child sent on an errand to pawn a wedding ring for food be transported to Auschwitz?
Monceau, an actor, who has performed in Germany in front of audiences enraptured by the beauty of art and theater, can’t believe that the German people could be so callous and cruel.
And the bearded Jew sits alone, silent but for whispered prayers which will go unanswered. When he is dragged away, his last possession, a prized feather pillow, is torn from his grip. The white goose down floats around the theater like ash from an incinerator.
At the core of the Incident are the conversations between Leduc, a psychiatrist and Von Berg, an Austrian prince.
The psychiatrist pokes and prods and manipulates, intent on escape. The prince first takes refuge in civilization, and then despairs for humanity.
In today’s parlance, the prince is confronted with his privilege, and finds himself at a loss. Miller himself points to the American’s treatment of “negros” as evidence that the roots of genocide are in every society.
And every few minutes, another character is taken into the back room.
What distinguished this production of Incident at Vichy from other agit-prop theater was a superb ensemble cast, nearly invisible direction, and an unrelentingly complex script. In the face of unrelenting horror, there is no easy right answer.
The outcome is inexorable. The history is irrefutable. Incidents like this happen all the time.
The audience watches, witnesses, and is helpless.
At the very end, a new round of suspects is brought in.
We leave the theater wondering, “What would we do? What will we do?”