State of Fear

The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) has a knack for resurrection, unearthing worthy revivals of long-ignored theatrical gems. Last spring, TACT presented Tennessee Williams’ The Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a play that had not been seen in New York for more than 30 years. Now TACT reaches back even further into the past, bringing us, for the first time since its 1964 premiere, a New York City production of Arthur Miller’s riveting Incident at Vichy. Incident at Vichy opens quickly, spotlighting a lone man — a prisoner — anxiously sitting on a bench outside an office. Lights go out and then come up again. This time there are two men. We see additional men, and eventually their captors, each time the lights go up. Here, director Scott Alan Evans departs uncharacteristically from the script’s production notes, where lights go up at once and all characters wear fixed expressions. Evans’ technique works terrifically and underscores the continuous accumulation of prisoners, a theme which the play revisits at its conclusion.

The French town of Vichy was occupied by the Germans from 1940-1944, and the play takes place in 1942. Men are being rounded up by local authorities collaborating with the Nazis. Ostensibly brought to the compound for a “paper check,” some of the men have heard nebulous rumors of sinister plots against Jews, and of railroad cars and concentration camps. All except one of the men are Jewish. Some believe these rumors are preposterous and that if they just do what they are told, they will be released. Others feel that escape is impossible and that they must try to overpower their captors. As they wait to be summoned, their arguments about their captors’ intentions form the basis of the play’s action. Though we learn that the rumors are true, some remain incredulous.

Scott Bradley’s set design is powerfully faithful to Miller’s description of “a warehouse, perhaps an armory or part of a railroad station not used by the public.” The office where interrogations take place, with pipes emanating from its roof, itself suggests a furnace-like structure. Sound designer Jill BC Du Boff deftly injects a dull and ominous mechanical hum to the action. The spaces between the prisoners on the bench, however, are tight and sometimes appear to impede the actors’ fullness of language. Evans, attempting to illustrate confinement, keeps the prisoners close together and forgoes much of the stage’s available space, but perhaps he should have again broken slightly from the script and permitted them to stalk the stage more often. When the actors do this their exchanges are more expansive for it.

In a cast of 16, some actors are naturally stronger than others. Though they come close at times, none, though, entirely convey the sheer and obvious terror Miller’s script describes. Prisoner foils — the psychiatrist Leduc (Christopher Burns) and the actor Monceau — are slightly mismatched here; Gregory Salata as Monceau is more proficient, with greater range. Todd Gearhart, a TACT mainstay, plays an excellent Von Berg, a sympathetic non-Jewish Austrian nobleman who has been caught in the dragnet. Mr. Gearhart, perhaps wisely dispensing with the accent, deftly straddles his character’s tendency toward finding “shreds of hope” where they don’t exist and his absolute first-hand knowledge of the ruthlessness of Nazism.

That savagery is apparent in the conflicted Major (played with convincing and edgy menace by Jack Koenig, and with great costuming by David Toser) and the Nazi loyalist Professor Hoffman (Jeffrey C. Hawkins), a servant of something called the “Race Institute.” His job is to examine the noses and penises of the prisoners to find out if they are Jewish. The arguments between Leduc and Monceau are mirrored by angry exchanges between the Major and the Professor over why they must perform their duties.

TACT’s program explains that Incident at Vichy received mixed reviews from critics and defensive letters from theater goers when it premiered at Lincoln Center. The program suggests that some of these may have represented thinly veiled reactions to the play’s implicit accusations of societal guilt for the rise of Nazism, and for the Holocaust. The gist of these reactions was that Miller effectively insulated himself from criticism by surrounding his play with events and sentiments that were politically incorrect to attack. Unfortunately, these self-serving comments distracted from an honest evaluation of the work and its meaning.

There is no doubt that Incident at Vichy is a thorough and broad condemnation of inaction in the face of evil. Miller was unapologetic about making the audience uncomfortable. And, even with Leduc psychoanalyzing the rationales of the survival strategies of his fellow prisoners, Miller’s writing mostly avoids overt didacticism. TACT’s production is a potent and fitting return of this overlooked classic.

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