Praxis Stage manages to get Arthur Miller’s message across, and it is a valuable one that must be deepened and repeated well beyond the inauguration.
By Bill Marx
I was partly drawn to this Praxis Stage production of Arthur Miller’s elongated one-act because the evening was billed as an anti-inaugural event. And it served that au courant function splendidly, given that the 1964 script revolves around issues of fascism, hatred, prejudice, evil, and bad faith.
Set in Vichy, France in 1942, the script centers on the sadistic scapegoating (and isolating) of “the other.” In this case, the Nazis have pulled some men off the streets, ostensibly to check their identity papers. But the truth is that they are being called in individually to have their penis inspected – those who are circumcised will be condemned as Jews and sent off to Poland, undoubtedly to die in a concentration camp. Given today’s technology, the Moslem registry reported to be in the works by the Trump administration will be somewhat more sophisticated in coming up with its IDs.
Miller’s drama (albeit clumsily) poses a nastily pertinent question. What do you do about barbarity that is committed by the government? Accept it because it is happening to others and not you? Feel guilty, but accept it because it is the law? Normalize hatred? Or fight it? “It is immensely difficult to be human precisely because we cannot detect our own hostility in our own actions,” Miller wrote in a New York Times piece on this play. We embrace elaborate alibis and forms of self-punishment as a way to escape acting ethically in the face of the injustice around us. We would rather feel guilt contemplating our passive complicity with what is happening than take an active role in combatting crimes against humanity. (This indifference to barbarity committed in our name is not limited to Trump, of course. Obama admitted that his accelerated drone program inevitably killed many innocent people.) In the NYTimes piece, Miller mentions the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights conflict in connection with this script; I wish he had chosen to address those issues more directly, rather than through this somewhat schematic historical drama-cum-allegory
The men respond to their horrific predicament with differing degrees of denial, innocence, and self-hatred. Unfortunately, Miller’s line-up is populated with types rather than individuals – there’s the earnest Marxist who dreams about a triumphant future for the working man, the actor who boasts about his skill at playing different roles, the psychologist who provides potted insights into the unconscious of his fellows, a young boy worried about his starving mother, and an Austrian aristocrat who has apparently been hauled in by accident. The latter is the pivotal figure; he is pressed to accept his elemental responsibility for what is happening. A sensitive gent, he hates the murderous vulgarity of the Nazis — he points out that Germany’s working men and women adore Hitler (i.e. Germany First) — but his confession of his attempt at suicide comes off as an effort to elude the need to take a stand. The script’s round-robin of excuses and laments turns the proceedings, at times, into a debating society; characters make their positions known (sometimes at length) before they are pulled into the room to have their pants pulled down. Think of it as a left-wing variation on the And Then There Were None genre.
Still, at a time when most American plays are more interested in therapy and empowerment than exploring ethical clarity, Incident at Vichy asks salient questions about compromise in the face of strong-armed evil. Plays in the Trump era had better tackle these moral and ideological barricades or face accusations of collusion. Ironically, Miller’s demand that we exercise our primal ethical muscle looks native today. Thump’s supporters are well aware of the animosity that propels their man’s rhetoric and proposals — that is just what they love about him. Those in the mainstream who are willing to accept the profitability of business-as-usual should, as Miller suggests, ask themselves whether guilt — the customary liberal escape clause (“the soul’s remorse at its own hostility”) — is an adequate response.
The wobbly Praxis stage production could have made better use of the intimacy of the marvelous Inner Sanctum space. Love those brick walls and that warehouse door! Unfortunately, directors Hatem Adell and Daniel Boudreau have allowed (or would that be encouraged?) the performers to rocket off into upper decibel levels, probably in the mistaken idea that louder means more ’dramatic.’ The truth is that vocal modulation, by making us lean in, would be much more powerful than efforts to make our ears ring. And so much more could have been done with music and lighting to shape the mood and scramble up the lockstep pacing. The acting styles of the cast members in this color blind production are broad and across the board, from the somewhat effective underplaying of Steve Auger as the aristocratic Van Berg to the surprising emotional inertness of Jake Athyal as the shrink to the full throttle emoting of Alexander Castillo-Nuñez as the actor. The Nazis are, as usual, played with too much self-preening thuggishness.
The text is pretty much intact, though Miller’s ending has been changed in a weird way that doesn’t make much sense. Still, Praxis Stage manages to get Miller’s message across, and it is a valuable one that must be deepened and repeated well beyond the inauguration.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.