The intelligence and emotional depth that Richard Thomas brings to his stage performances was evident as early as his breakout role as John-Boy Walton on the long-running CBS drama The Waltons. The Emmy-winning actor has had his fair share of notable television appearances, most recently as F.B.I. supervisor Frank Gaad on The Americans, but over the course of his career, he’s also made a name for himself on the stage with a series of challenging roles. Currently he leads a sterling ensemble cast in the Signature Theatre’s off-Broadway revival of Incident at Vichy, which Arthur Miller once explained was based on a story that was related to him by a psychoanalyst. In the one-act drama, which premiered 50 years ago on Broadway, nine men and a boy are rounded up in 1942 Vichy, France under suspicious circumstances and left to ponder their ultimate fate. Thomas plays Prince Von Berg, an Austrian aristocrat who’s one of the detainees. We sat down with the 64-year-old actor, along with director Michael Wilson, to talk about the current production of this lesser-known work by the great Arthur Miller.
How did both of you come to work together on Incident at Vichy?
Michael Wilson: When Signature asked me to direct the play, I thought of Richard from the very first moment. It’s almost as if Arthur wrote the part of the Prince for him. I grew up with Richard being a major actor for me in my life, not just The Waltons and movies like The Red Badge of Courage, but also from seeing his incredible range of stage work. I’ve been blessed to see Richard do the title roles in Peer Gynt and Hamlet, so I’ve always dreamed of working with him. I was the associate producer and worked closely on Danton’s Death [in 1992 at the Alley Theater in Houston], in which he played the lead.
Richard Thomas: I was so thrilled when Michael called me. We had known each other way back, and I’ve always wanted to work with him as well. This has been a long time coming. It’s my first time with Miller as well. I knew the play from having seen the television version. It just took the one phone call and for me to look at the play for me to say yes. It was a no-brainer.
Wilson: One of the great fears of going to Richard was I knew he had The Americans. But they’ve been so amazing. He was shooting the series while he was rehearsing the play. I remember he said, “Michael, if it does interrupt a rehearsal, which I would hate, you know I’m very hard worker.”
What is it about the play that was so attractive to the both of you?
Wilson: When I read the play I saw all the richness and depth and intelligence of Miller’s argument. I knew we have to make that super clear, but beyond that, we’ve got to bring this incredible humanity to these characters. I mean, who could have written a play that deals with the Holocaust that spans only 86 minutes and cover so much terrain as he did?
Thomas: I’m just delighted that it’s the Miller centennial and we’re getting to do a play that most people haven’t seen. I’ve done a lot of catching up. I was born in 1951, so I was a post-war baby, but that period had a ghost-like influence on one’s growing up. It’s been harrowing to reenter into that world as an adult. This kind of mid-century, socially conscious drama is so typical of its period. When you have a play that has such a strong set of arguments, and which contains so many ideas, questions, and maybe some answers around an issue, the challenge for all of us is to embody the ideas and the dialectics, and to find the people—so that it really always feels like people talking to each other urgently.
Wilson: Obviously this is a play about these Jews that were hounded and brought into this detention center. Their lives had essentially stopped as soon as the Nazis started implementing their racial program, even before the events of this play. But what’s also extraordinary is the way that Miller turned his eyes on Gentile characters such as the Prince, who has also had his own struggles going back to the end of the empire years in Austria, and then there’s the German major. One of the characters says this is happening because the Germans are fascists, and another says it isn’t because they’re fascists, but because they’re people. Some may find this controversial, but ultimately it’s so deeply human. Miller really lifts this play into something very complicated.
Can you speak to the nuances and function of Richard’s character, Prince Von Berg?
Wilson: Richard’s character is drawn from two different real incidents which Miller fused and compressed into this beautiful dramatic story. Many people in the audience identify so absolutely with the Prince because they think he did generous things, giving people shelter. But what Miller is saying is, if you have the power and the ability to actually have an impact, you must give voice against a terrible scourge like this. Every night, I love Richard’s entrance. It’s silent and mysterious. I use the word mysterious because of the way Richard has built his performance—the way that Von Berg blossoms through the play and the way he’s revealed and unveiled.
Thomas: The Prince can’t hide, really. The ability to have that sense of mystery comes with the fact that he has a built-in modesty about himself. He has a reticence about not imposing himself or his ideas. So this holding back out of a sense of propriety gives the sense of an unknown quality. But ultimately he can’t only be partly present and hold something in reserve. In order for him to take the action he takes, he has to go from being a very polite, self-effacing person to being fully, nakedly present.
Do you have a particular take on doing a revival of Incident at Vichy today?
Thomas: During rehearsals, Michael would say that we must be aware that we’re doing this for audiences in 2015, and that was very helpful.
Wilson: The play is set in 1942 and written in the early ’60s, but we wanted it to sizzle today. So how do you fulfill the style? Sometimes we play against that style and it just feels very modern. I like to call the play a serious thriller, because for it to work there’s also this aspect that comes from TV series like The Americans or Homeland—because, you know, with a lot of content that we have now on television, all of these terrible conflicts are brought into people’s living rooms every night and in a very intense way. I felt a particular interest in the audience being engaged from that kind of level of suspense and care and commitment to these characters. But given that it’s Miller, he always has a very serious idea behind his work. He really wants the audience to ask the questions that are being asked of Richard’s character. It has certainly made me think about this whole atrocity in a much deeper way. And though it’s an ensemble piece, the spine of the play is about the emergence of the Prince to this new, if you will, almost horrible self-knowledge that he has to contend with.
Thomas: That all of us have to. This is so Miller. The subject matter of the play notwithstanding, the tragic element of dawning self-knowledge is so much a part of Miller’s work all the way through.
How do you think audiences can experience the play today?
Thomas: The action of the play, in which one character begins to understand his complicity in a situation that he’s appalled by, is a very useful thing to think about today. We have so much information about the world now. We understand the matrix of all of these things that are happening. We’re beginning to understand a bigger picture, which is that all of us are implicated in one way or another. Either the food we eat, the energy we use, the stores we buy products at, whatever the connection is. Understanding how individuals fit into the larger picture, I think, is a very pertinent idea now for people. Especially for people with a liberal conscience who feel that having their heart in the right place is somehow sufficient. You can still be complicit. And this is one of the things we learn in the play. Miller wrote a series of essays and there’s one about Vichy where he says he wanted people specifically through this play to question how their actions in 1964 affected the civil rights movement: “What am I doing or not doing that’s either supporting a slum lord inadvertently or passively, tacitly allowing the continuation of the oppression of African-Americans?”
Wilson: The play isn’t only incredibly relevant domestically, with our national conversation about race, but also internationally with the refugee situation in Syria. But what I find so incredibly moving, and of course it’s the great gift that he gave us, is that Miller ends the play with hope. Healing is possible, and it’s possible that a few certain people can actually make a difference in this world.
What’s it like now after playing a few weeks of performances?
Thomas: Even though it’s an exquisite part, this is a true ensemble and Miller has written something beautiful for everybody. There’s nothing more exciting than being in that kind of a game—playing with a whole stage full of other actors. And, you know, you learn the strength of a text as it continues to reveal itself to you. If you get right to the bottom of the play within the first week, you’ve hit that spot. But if you’re working with a strong text, it continually emerges. The close reading that you do in rehearsal is amplified and added to constantly through the run of the play and you know you’re onto something that’s going to sustain and keep leading you all the way through the length of the run. Now that we have previews under our belt and as a company we’re getting our rhythms, the play just rises on its own accord and has its own life now on stage. I learn something about it every night.