'Incident at Vichy': Arthur Miller's Polemic on Nazi Terror

If anyone still doubts after the attacks in Paris that terror and barbarity must be must be fought with all one's strength, they should get tickets to the Signature Theatre's revival of Incident at Vichy, Arthur Miller's gripping polemic on another age's terror and barbarity.

Confronted with senseless atrocity, the question that always burns in one's mind is "how could this happen?" And never has the question been more unfathomable than in trying to understand the Nazis' systematic slaughter of millions of Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

The play takes place in a sort of makeshift detention room in Vichy, France, in 1942. After the French surrender to Hitler in 1940, France was divided into two sections - the north under German occupation and the south remaining under nominal French control. Many Jews, Communists, Gypsies, homosexuals and others who had reason to fear living under the Nazis fled to the so-called French State, which had its capital in Vichy.

But after the Allied landings in northern Africa in 1942, German forces occupied Vichy as well and the safe haven of those who sought refuge there earlier in the war collapsed. The Nazis, with the help of French police, began rounding up Jews and the infamous railway cars began detouring to southern France to carry them to the death camps in Poland and elsewhere.

In Incident at Vichy, the lights come up on a group of seven men, all unknown to one another, sitting silently in the bleak outer room of an abandoned building that has been taken over by the new German military authorities. They have been picked up ostensibly as part of an identity check, but an undercurrent of fear permeates the room.

Under the always intelligent direction of Michael Wilson, no one says a word for a long time. But whatever tension is built in that silence mostly evaporates in the opening scene. The first to break the silence is Lebeau, played by a miscast Jonny Orsini, a young artist whose complaints about being detained are more whiny, even comedic, than "charged with fear," or "hysterical," as Miller describes him.

But the action and the drama pick up as more detainees are brought in, and the men begin to discuss how they were arrested and why.

Miller has a representative from every class and viewpoint on stage to take part in the 90-minute debate. The first to spread alarm at their plight is Bayard, an electrician and a Communist, who tells the others about a 30-car train in the railyard from which women and babies have been heard crying and the doors of which are locked.

Among the others in the room are a businessman, an actor, a waiter, a 15-year-old boy, an elderly man, a Gypsy, a psychiatrist, and an Austrian aristocrat. One by one, each of the men tries to rationalize his arrest and convince himself that once his papers are checked he will be released. All are in various stages of denial, assuring themselves that the Nazi Racial Laws don't apply in Vichy. As one observes, "People won't believe they can be killed."

Miller's structure is similar to that of Twelve Angry Men, the play and movie about a group of jurors deliberating, though in Incident at Vichy the men are pondering their own fate rather than someone else's.

The most engaging parts of Incident at Vichy are when Leduc, the doctor, and Von Berg, the Austrian prince, dispute over who bears the responsibility for the barbarity the Nazis have unleashed on the world. For Leduc, all are responsible, those who passively took the path of least resistance to the Nazis as much as those who eagerly joined Hitler's juggernaut. The Prince is more forgiving. "With enough propaganda, you can confuse anybody," he says.

The conflict becomes even harsher when the German Army major assisting the young Aryan civilian in charge of the operation tries to assuage his own guilt by telling Leduc he is against it. "There are no persons anymore," the Major says, explaining why in his view it is futile to try to resist the tide of Nazism that has swept Europe. That futility is brought home when none of the others agrees to join Leduc in an escape attempt.

Perhaps the most chilling moments in this revival, which occasionally flags in energy, come when peals of laughter emanate from behind the door to the adjoining room as the Nazi and French interrogators inspect the detainees' penises rather than their identity papers.

Some roles are more fully realized than others. Richard Thomas is excellent as Von Berg, the effete aristocrat whose main complaint about the Nazis is that they are "vulgar," but who is the only one to make a sacrifice as a blow against them. Darren Pettie is forceful as Leduc and James Capinello is credibly indignant as the pessimistic German major.

There are admirable performances in some of the smaller roles. Jonathan Gordon gives a touching turn as the Boy, anxious only that his mother's wedding ring is returned to her, and Jonathan Hadary is moving as the Old Jew, reading from a Torah until he is summoned to the next room.