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BWW Review: Arthur Miller's INCIDENT AT VICHY Asks Uncomfortable Questions About Survival

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"How could this happen?" is a question that often comes up when faced with horrific acts of disregard for human life. In 1964, less than twenty years after the world began discovering exactly what was going on in Hitler's Germany and its occupied European lands, Arthur Miller attempted to address that question with INCIDENT AT VICHY, now getting a fine and sensitively-acted production directed by Michael Wilson for Signature Theatre.

Darren Pettie and Richard Thomas (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Miller was inspired to write the one-act play after covering Nazi trials in Frankfort for The New York Herald Tribune and was struck by the everyday faces of the everyday people who committed unspeakable acts. Issues of self-survival and obedience to those designated as one's superiors weren't new, but they were now seen in an extraordinarily extreme light. With INCIDENT AT VICHY, the playwright goes a step further, addressing the question of self-sacrifice and passive responsibility.

Designer Jeff Cowie provides an imposing and battered warehouse for the setting. It is 1942 in German-occupied Vichy, France. Gradually, the large space gets filled by a group of men who have been grabbed off the street. They presume each other to be Jews, though not all of them are, and that this may be just a routine inspection of papers. The nervous Lebeau (Jonny Orsini), a painter, says they measured his nose before detaining him. The Viennese aristocrat, Von Berg (Richard Thomas), is certain his presence must be a mistake.

They've heard rumors of concentration camps, although the flamboyant actor, Monceau (Derek Smith) says he's received a letter from a relative sent to Auschwitz telling him he's fine. ("They've even taught him bricklaying.")

Darren Pettie, Jonny Orsini and Evan Zes
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

One by one they're called into another room for questioning. Most are not seen again but after his turn, businessman Marchand (John Procaccino) is set free to go, giving others hope that they too might pass the inspection. The audience knows better. When former soldier Leduc (Darren Pettie) suggests there are enough of them to overpower the guard and escape, those remaining would rather not risk their own chance at freedom for the sake of trying to rescue the entire group.

When Leduc verbally confronts the major in charge (James Carpinello), the man fiercely argues that he's disgusted by his duties, but his personal safety gives him no other choice. He demands that Leduc honesty answer whether or not he would accept the offer if, theoretically, he were set free on the condition that the others would not be.

Audiences love stories of heroism and self-sacrifice, and Miller does offer some satisfaction on that end, but INCIDENT AT VICHY is more about the survival instinct. There are cruel people in the world that do horrible things for their own sick sadistic pleasure. There are others who do horrible things, and sometimes doing nothing at all is a horrible thing, as a matter of preserving their own safety and the safety of their loved ones. It can be an uncomfortable play to watch, but it's the discomfort that makes it good theatre.


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