In 1964, the New York Herald Tribune asked playwright Arthur Miller to cover the war crimes trial in Germany of the Nazi officials who ran the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
While listening to the testimony of man’s inhumanity to man, Miller started writing “Incident at Vichy,” and the play premiered in December of the same year at New York’s Washington Square Theatre.
“Vichy,” now on stage at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, was generally well received in New York, though not with the superlatives that greeted Miller’s earlier “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible” and “All My Sons.” Some critics panned the one-act play as too didactic and moralistic.
Rereading “Vichy” now, it appears that the play has aged well, and the intervening decades have done nothing to lessen the acuity of Miller’s inquiry into the nature, conscience and prejudices of the human animal.
Set in 1942, after the Nazis’ swift defeat of France, and the division of it into Nazi-occupied and “unoccupied” Vichy halves, the play opens in a “place of detention” holding eight men and a 14-year-old boy.
They have been picked up off the streets without charges and are now trying to puzzle out the reason for their confinement and their likely fate at the hands of the French police, who are supervised by a German “professor of racial anthropology.”
After first deluding themselves that the roundup is just a routine ID check, the inmates gradually realize that they have been arrested because, according to Nazi criteria, they appear to be Jews.
As each of the men is called into the adjacent interrogation room, only two qualify as obvious “Aryans,” a French businessman and Prince von Berg, a member of the old Austrian nobility who despises the Nazis.
In the end, only two are left waiting, the prince and Leduc, a French-Jewish psychiatrist who was picked up after leaving a safe hiding place to scout for some pain medicine to ease his wife’s toothache.
The two engage in the play’s most probing dialogue, with the psychiatrist pitilessly stripping the aristocrat of his idealistic “illusions.”
Leduc lectures, “I am angry that I should have been born before the day when man has accepted his own nature; that he is not reasonable, that he is full of murder, that his ideals are only the little tax he pays for the right to hate and kill with a clear conscience.”
Miller ends the play on a somewhat more hopeful note, showing that man’s better angels may occasionally triumph over his bestiality.
I sat down and discussed the upcoming performance of “Vichy” with director Barbara Schofield, who also serves as a resident director for the Sierra Madre Playhouse.
Her resume includes a doctorate in theater from Tufts University, further studies in Berlin and London, and some two decades of experience as actor, director, producer and teacher at universities and theaters from New York to Hollywood.
“I’ve been wanting to do this play for a long time, because the issues Miller raises are relevant for every generation and relevant to us today,” Schofield said. “The question is, what does the moral individual do when the norms of society break down; how does he or she act in a world devoid of values?”
In American society today, the individualistic cowboy mentality is getting the upper hand over the community’s collective needs, Schofield believes.
The Sierra Madre Playhouse, once a vaudeville palace and then a movie house, was converted into a 99-seat theater in the 1970s. It maintains a year-round schedule of plays and breaks almost even on ticket sales to a predominantly white, elderly and conservative audience, the director said.
All this in a community of 11,000, nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, with a volunteer fire department and the distinction of having been named an “All-America City” by the National Civic League in 2007.
Since joining the Playhouse staff four years ago, Schofield has been trying to attract a younger audience through somewhat edgier plays and has found that the theater’s current patrons will accept a certain level of sexual frankness but are turned off by blasphemy.
“We’re not pushing the envelope,” she said. “For instance, we’re not going to put on a play like David Mamet’s [expletive-laden] ‘Speed-the-Plow.’ “
Schofield describes the small-theater scene in the Los Angeles area as “the most active in the country, with more venues than in New York and Chicago combined. Here, we have a new theater company opening up practically every day.”
“Incident at Vichy” continues through Sept. 8. Performances are on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. For reservations, phone (626) 355-4318, or order tickets online at sierramadreplayhouse.org.