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At the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington Sept. 21-24

It’s not the banality of evil that horrifies Arthur Miller so much as the sheer universality of it.

That’s one impression, at least, that surfaces in the wake of his 1964 drama Incident at Vichy. Nine men and a boy, plucked from the streets of occupied France in one of the regular Nazi roundups of suspected Jews, wait to have their identities checked by the German officials who call them one by one into an offstage room. Like characters from Beckett, they talk while they wait, hoping that by the very rationality of their conversation they can impose a kind of rationality on their situation.

But rumors filter into the dim gray room—of forced-labor crews, of locked boxcars bearing human cargo, and, finally, of camps and ovens and burnings. From this place, this moment, the 10 will either go free or go to their deaths, and on its face the play is concerned with the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary ugliness. But look a little deeper, listen a little harder: Evil, Miller is arguing in his characteristically passionate voice, isn’t just the unspeakable things others do at critical moments—it exists in the seemingly forgivable things all of us do when we can convince ourselves it doesn’t really matter.

“‘Jew’ is only the name we give to that stranger, that agony we cannot feel, that death we look at like a cold abstraction,” insists LeDuc, the psychiatrist who forms half of the opposing pair at the play’s ethical heart. Miller’s moral compass permits no distinction among degrees of evil; the part of us that can rationalize our refusal to help the homeless woman on the sidewalk, he insists, is the part of us that has the capacity to permit the extermination of a population. Any refusal to intervene in another’s suffering is a denial of the humanity that links us. And every human is stained by that denial, LeDuc argues: “There is nothing and there will be nothing until you face your own complicity with this.”

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Director Benjamin Fishman, in a stark and often stirring co-production of the Washington Shakespeare Company and the Washington Jewish Theatre, picks up on that argument with touches that underscore the contemporary relevance of the play’s concerns: “Kosovo” and “East Timor,” along with “Treblinka” and “Kristallnacht,” leap from the yellowing newspapers plastered on the walls of the holding cell, and now and again a uniformed figure passes in slow motion down a hallway outside, the half-seen embodiment of intrusive totalitarian authority. Not the subtlest of gestures, perhaps, and yet possibly too understated to be much of a statement: The production doesn’t implicate the audience with quite the same degree of conviction Miller summons in the text.

Neither is the staging, with its cast of unevenly matched actors, quite as carefully balanced as the play itself. Miller provides LeDuc (Daniel Ladmirault, a powerful presence) with a foil—and the world with the possibility of hope—in the person of Von Berg (Jon Cohn, sensitive but a degree less assured), an Austrian aristocrat rounded up with the rest. He will go free, of course—not by virtue of his rank but by virtue of his race—and it’s what he chooses to do with his pass to freedom that represents the response Miller offers to his own moral challenge. LeDuc is the voice that, in the fashion of Beckett and the determinists, cries that there can be no reason, that “man is full of murder,” that all striving will end in failure; Von Berg is the voice that answers in favor of commitment, of taking responsibility, of striving nonetheless.

The play boils down, in fact, to the power of individual choices, to Miller’s insistence that always, even in impossibly constrained circumstances, there are decisions worth making—even if choosing aright carries with it no power to change the situation. Each of the minor characters (Michael Laurino’s painter, Lucas Maroney’s waiter, Tony Gudell’s play-by-the-rules actor, and the Marxist worker and the Establishmentarian businessman and the Gypsy and the Old Jew) is a conundrum revealed only by his reaction to the choice presented in the confines of their cell: to resist, knowing that there is little chance of escape, or to retreat into denial and rationalization, knowing that there is little chance of survival. (All of us are those characters, Miller seems to be saying; we are unknown quantities until we reveal ourselves by our moral choices.) Only Von Berg, who as Miller makes clear is hardly free from guilt himself, is able to act—and in so doing, he gives another the chance to act as well.

Miller leaves the outcome of those actions deliberately unclear—the last scene explodes beyond the confines of the holding room, even as the stage resets and the narrative seems to begin again. What will become of Von Berg after the lights go down is anyone’s guess, as is the fate of the man who seizes the offered chance. But Miller presents—in those actions, in that explosion, in the very uncertainty they create—an argument about the primacy of the individual in an age that thinks of individuality in terms of its limits. Evil is everywhere, Incident at Vichy acknowledges, but each of us has a chance to turn it away, perhaps even to turn it back, when we encounter it. In doing so, we have the power to turn it out of ourselves. CP