David Kieran, left, and Richard Michael Knolla in "Incident at Vichy"… (Michael Sirota )
Resolute craft drives the cautionary content of “Incident at Vichy” at the Sierra Madre Playhouse. Arthur Miller’s 1964 study of detainees in Nazi-occupied France isn’t exactly top tier, but when executed as intensely as this gripping revival, it might as well be.
The setting, well designed by director Barbara Schofield and Don Bergmann, recalls Sartre’s “No Exit” by way of many a B-movie. In a stark anteroom, located somewhere in the officially free zone, a group of archetypes await questioning. Nobody knows precisely why they’re here, until one, then another leaves for interrogation and doesn’t return, and the incomprehensible truth emerges.
Miller’s compressed dramaturgy and exposed symbolism is schematic, with more characters than 90 minutes can fully encompass. But when a young waiter (Zayd Jaber) overhears French agents talking about trains to Poland, his frantic delivery -- “Furnaces!” -- sends a collective shiver down our spines.
Director Schofield deftly maintains the life-and-death stakes, which her actors embody with such conviction that even technical inequities -- a missing accent here, fumbled lines there -- become interpretive assets. Barry Saltzman’s seriocomic painter and Rendon Ramsey’s agitated electrician exemplify the poles of approach, with Colin Campbell’s rationalizing actor, Matt Dodge’s initially sympathetic German major and Andy Scott Harris’ sensitive adolescent providing other notable turns amid a solid ensemble.
It climaxes in a face-off between a reluctantly clear-eyed psychiatrist (the excellent Richard Michael Knolla) and a mistakenly targeted Austrian prince (David Kieran, emotionally vital). While their colloquy welds melodrama to polemic, it’s inescapably potent. You only have to recall Abu Ghraib to appreciate “Vichy’s” present-day acuity.
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“Incident at Vichy,” Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 8. $25. (626) 355-4318 or www.SierraMadrePlayhouse.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.