Todd Gearhart, John Friemann, and Christopher Burns
in Incident at Vichy
(© Stephen Kunken)
Todd Gearhart, John Friemann, and Christopher Burns
in Incident at Vichy
(© Stephen Kunken)
It isn't difficult to understand the initial resistance by audiences and critics to Arthur Miller's 1964 play Incident at Vichy, now being given an excellent revival by The Actors Company Theatre at Theatre Row. Much of the play registers as didactic as it depicts anxious detainees -- most of them Jewish -- hunkering on a detention-room bench and concerned their papers won't get them dismissed by the presiding authorities. The fevered opus frequently comes across as a moralizing debate as well as a patent use of the Holocaust to hold viewers emotionally hostage.

Nevertheless, this production, directed by Scott Alan Evans with clarity and compassion and acted by a first-rate troupe of committed character actors, should go a considerable way towards a positive reassessment of the work, which -- running a pressure-cooker 85 minutes -- is truly Miller's most harrowing theater piece.

The politically-outraged playwright -- who sometimes came across as overly impressed with his own public moral stance -- took for his inspiration a story that he had heard about a personal World War II sacrifice. Elaborating on the anecdote, he imagined a situation where nine men and one 14-year-old boy have been picked up in a random hunt for Jews with forged papers. One of them, a painter called Lebeau (Mark Alhadeff), even reports having his nose measured.

Miller is (perhaps excessively) careful to ascribe differing points of view to the agitatedly conversing men -- only one of whom, a bearded elderly man clutching a stuffed burlap bag (John Freeman), never speaks. At one end of the spectrum is an actor, Monceau (Gregory Salata), whose insistence that all will resolve quickly becomes recognizable as an ominous denial. At the other end is a doctor, Leduc (Christopher Burns), whose pessimism thickens and who eventually becomes engaged with a straight-backed Viennese prince, Von Berg (Todd Gearhart), in Miller's most philosophical clash. Meanwhile, a German major (Jack Koenig), though skeptical of Nazism, taunts the captives.

While there's little doubt that one of Miller's aims in the work is to explore the possibility of decency in an increasingly indecent world, his real intention is to speculate on an issue succinctly summed up in Edmund Burke's often-repeated statement, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." It's enough to say that Miller eventually finds a glimmer of hope in a sentimentalized-if-realistic, all-but-Dickensian way.

Within the confines of the stark and gloomy set into which designer Scott Bradley has inserted a high row of begrimed windows, the aristocratically handsome Gearhart and the tall and determined Burns bring urgency to their confrontations. In addition, Koenig as the limping major with some vestigial misgivings and Salata as the self-deceiving Monceau stand out, as does Russell Kahn as a boy intent that the wedding ring his mother gave him to pawn reaches its destination.