Remembering the Past: Miller’s Vichy Still Rings True

Remembering the Past: Miller’s Vichy Still Rings True

It is blatantly clear how Gallery Players’ next production, Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, exemplifies its mission of highlighting the Jewish experience. A Jewish playwright depicts a story that takes place in Nazi-occupied France during the Holocaust. It’s a story told a thousand times in a thousand different ways – but one that never loses one ounce of importance.

Miller completed the play in just three weeks after attending Nazi trials in Frankfurt, Germany in 1964. His reaction to the trials culminated in dramatizing the subject matter drawing on two major themes – guilt and responsibility.

Set in a police station in yet-to-be occupied Vichy, France in 1942, eight men have been picked up for questioning on their religious status. There is confusion, denial, and concern. There have been whispers of the atrocities committed in Germany and Poland, and Nazi-occupied Paris but none of them quite know why they have been arrested. The play focuses on two of the prisoners and a German police officer who engage in dramatic confrontation over suspicions, superficiality, sacrifice, and the significance of individual human existence.

Long-time Gallery Players member Laurie Alexander has tackled the project of directing the play.

“It is an actor’s play,” Alexander said, “There is no chase scene, no music – it’s about the acting and the characters and the situation they’re in.”

Alexander, passionate about Holocaust education, likes to tell the stories that are not well known.

“I like to get in people’s faces with these kinds of stories,” Alexander said, “Sometimes people know part of the story but not the whole story. I really believe one of the best ways of Holocaust education is through the theater.”

Guilt and responsibility. The two cruxes of the play throw one of the characters, VonBerg, into a self-examination of what it means to be a decent human being. VonBerg is an Austrian aristocrat detained by mistake. As he, and others, come to realize the fate that lies before them, he must choose to live with the guilt of complicity or take the responsibility of speaking out and enacting change.

The cast is small and only men. Many of the actors in this production are Jewish themselves. To create a connection for the actors, Alexander asked French Holocaust survivor Fran Greenberg to speak to the cast. Her father was taken away from her family in the night when she was four years old by French citizens working for the Vichy government. After being separated from her mother and her sister, she hid in a convent until after the war.

“It’s not just a play – it really happened,” Alexander said. “Even though it was years ago, people were paralyzed listening to her story that was told as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. After she talked to us, everybody hugged her and thanked her but it affected them, it affected me. Remembering the past is important.”

Anca Brates-Galron, a well-versed dramaturg in Miller’s plays and Holocaust studies, describes the Holocaust as the backdrop for a contemporary message of social responsibility.

“The play discusses what it means to be responsible, what it means to be guilty, what it means to be an immigrant. The play uses the Holocaust to discuss these themes,” Brates-Galron said, “With immigration issues and social prejudices around the world, it is very contemporary.”

A dramaturg is someone who provides documentation of the play, the author, and the historical context surrounding both. Brates-Galron provided numerous interviews with Miller, chapters from books, movies, and more giving the actors context of what Miller was trying to purvey with his writing.

“There is so much information because this is an important play by the greatest playwright in America,” Brates-Galron said.

In these writings, Miller describes the themes from Incident at Vichy as transcendental of time and rather a look at the human condition and what perpetually flaws mankind.

Alexander believes this overarching message of the play looks to shape the future by studying the past. “We have to take responsibility for what’s going on in the world – we have to vote, to demonstrate, we have to complain, we have to write letters to our senators. The idea of social responsibility is so relevant to today. We can’t shut ourselves off to tragedies of the world. Every single person can do something about it whether it’s just a phone call or a letter.”

Alexander hopes that the play rekindles and inspires a need in people to take social responsibility.

“Some people may say, ‘I went to this play – it was too sad. It was about the Holocaust’,” Alexander said, “but it’s not enough just to feel bad when we are reminded of the past or watch the news. I don’t know how many people it will get off their seats to do something but we have to try.”

Incident at Vichy opens Saturday, May 5 at 8 p.m. The show runs through May 13. For more information on show times and to purchase tickets, visit columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players.

Gallery Players is generously underwritten by the Lenore Schottenstein and Community Jewish Arts Fund of the Columbus Jewish Foundation.