BRIGIT SAINT BRIGIT'S 'INCIDENT AT VICHY' IS POWERFUL, THOUGHT-PROVOKING THEATER
by Julien R. Fielding
Arthur Miller’s play “Incident at Vichy” was staged in the early 1960’s, during a time of social and political unrest. At that time, it was critically heralded; The New York Times raved that it was “one of the most important plays of our time” and that it “returns the theater to greatness.”
“Incident at Vichy” is set in 1942 Vichy, France. A group of men have been detained by the local police, and while they are waiting to be interviewed, they discover, with increasing alarm, the horrors that await them. In all, there are 10 men sitting on the bench: Lebeau (Garett Garniss), a painter; a Gypsy (Josh Ryan); Bayard (John Hatcher), an electrician/communist; Marchand (Isaac Reilly), a businessman; a waiter (Jeremy Earl); a boy (Jackson Hatcher); the Old Jew (David Sindelar); Monceau (David Mainelli), an actor; Leduc (Kurz), a psychologist; and Von Berg (Vince Carlson), an Austrian aristocrat.
Although the story is Miller’s way of dealing with the Holocaust, it isn’t that narrow of focus. It actually explores the idea that every group, since the beginning of time, has had its “other”; its “stranger,” and because these persons are in this outsider group, they are often subject to persecution and, in some cases, execution. But what’s most intriguing about the play is that it doesn’t let anyone off the hook.
Even the Jews have their Jews, a character says. And because we are all capable of this kind of hatred, we are also capable of allowing atrocity either directly, by killing the people, or indirectly, by knowing that they will be rounded up, incarcerated, and maybe killed, but because of apathy, disbelief, or self-preservation, we do nothing. We delude ourselves into believing that humans aren’t brutes and beasts, despite a lengthy history of proving otherwise.
When “Incident” was staged in 2015, many said that the play was “outdated.” This could only come from someone unaware of history, because it is replete with examples of mass killing. The Holocaust may be the best known example but many corners of the globe have been forever changed by madmen. For instance, Bosnia, Uganda, Cambodia, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Burma, Chile, Russia, and China, just to name a few.
Even the United States has blood on its hands for its treatment of African slaves and indigenous peoples. Today, plans for the systematic destruction of indigenous peoples continues in Brazil, under the mad reign of Bolsonaro. (Maduro of Venezuela, Duterte of the Philippines, and Kim Jong-Un of North Korea are equally maniacal tyrants and murderers.) Closer to home, the Trump administration has detained Latin Americans, separated families with perhaps no plans or hope of reconciliation; and has talked of starting a Muslim registry.
Those who want to go delve further into the ideas brought up in Incident or who want to know more about this production, you can stay after for a talk back with many of the actors, including Kurz, who also directs. Depending on the day, audiences can also query various experts, ranging from the director of the Institute for Holocaust Education to the regional director of the ADL-CRC.
On one of the nights I attended, a Holocaust survivor briefly shared his story, and remarked how important he thought this play was. And it is. It should be required viewing by all high school and university students. (The Omaha Public School system agreed, and has funded the opportunity for students to attend several performances — all staged at various high schools — for free).
The message is critical, yes, but if the delivery is dull; the pacing, poor, then it doesn’t really matter what a play is saying. But that isn’t the case with this BSB production. It truly is a masterclass in acting. All the actors did a fine job, but there were standouts. Sindelar doesn’t speak any lines, but his presence is critical to this production. He is its heart. His character, the Old Jew, is dressed in black and sports a long white beard. In his hands he clutches a bag. At times, he is unsteady on his feet. To others, he seems confused, as if something has happened to him.
During one of the talkbacks, Kurz explained that he and Sindelar conceived of the character as a man, a former rabbi, who has had a stroke. This is why he doesn’t speak. He does make an unintelligible sound; just, once, as he is dragged off stage. It is that of a wounded animal. Watching him being humiliated, and then hearing this “cry” … it’s absolutely gut-wrenching. It brought me to tears. It’s an important moment, because it highlights the vulnerability of everyone on the stage, and the cruelty of their captors.
Mainelli is particularly good, especially because on paper, his character is unlikeable — he comes off as pompous — and yet, Mainelli grounds him and makes his actions more reasonable; understandable. Furthermore, he has a very natural delivery. He’s developing into a very fine actor. As the painter, Garniss seems to be about ready to jump out of his skin with anxiety. His leg bounces a mile a minute, and he often rapidly, mindlessly, taps a brush on his leg. He, too, could have come off as annoying, but Garniss gives him a lot of humanity. And in a play that could come off as somber, he injects a bit of humor. All the actors give the audience food for thought and deliver powerful performances, but the highlight comes near the last quarter of the play.
Watching Carlson and Kurz interact is worth the price of admission alone. These are two A-level actors, who probably could have found their fortunes in Hollywood or on the Broadway stage. They will leave you breathless and wanting more. (I saw the play on Friday, and then saw it again on Sunday.) Hopefully, this won’t be a one-off opportunity to see them sharing a stage.
Scott Working, who plays the wounded, very reluctant Major, is also a treat to watch. His scene with Kurz is incredible. And Thomas Lowe, who plays the professor, is wonderful. Offstage, Lowe is the nicest person; in this role, he’s a racial purist whose insistence on efficiency and completion, will leave you a bit sick to your stomach. To think that the Nazis could process people — people they knew were destined for the furnaces — with such casualness (several times, you hear the Nazis offstage laughing) … it’s bone chilling. And here you confront that attitude from a few hundred feet away.
In all the years that I’ve seen and reviewed theater — I was the arts and entertainment editor at the Daily Nonpareil from 2000 to 2002, and I’ve seen a lot of plays since then — this ranks as one of my Top 5 all-time favorites. It’s powerful, thought-provoking theater that is much needed in our charged political climate. Don’t miss out.
“Incident at Vichy” continues through April 21. It began its run at the Jewish Community Center and will conclude at the B Side of Benson Theatre (6058 Maple St.). Audiences also can stay after the 90-minute play and participate in the talk back. Three art installations will also be on hand. For more information, go to bsbtheatre.com.
— Julien Fielding is a freelance movie and local theater reviewer. See more of her works at fieldingonfilm.com.
It isn’t staged very often — it had a brief Broadway revival in 2015, and has never appeared in the Council Bluffs-Omaha area — and the reasons are possibly many. As some have noted, it’s a very “talky play,” with characters delivering long, philosophical and political monologues while seated on a bench. I have read the play, and it can seem overly “intellectual” and “static.” Thankfully, Scott Kurz, executive director at Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre, recognized its flaws and the result is nothing short of astounding. It’s been paired and shaped into its best version.