The people are restless. They are sick of the experts and the career politicians. They are also broke and out of work after a recession that many blame on those same politicians. And on the immigrants. So when a populist presidential candidate comes along promising to fix their lives, throw out the immigrants and make the country great again, the people vote him in. Sound familiar? You might be surprised to learn that this is the premise of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 book "It Can’t Happen Here," which the author adapted into a play in 1936. Tony Taccone and Bennett S. Cohen made a new adaptation, which was performed in 2016 at Berkeley Rep and a host of other theaters on the 80th anniversary of the play’s first showing.
Written during the rise of fascism in Europe, it tells the tale of Doremus Jessup (Vic Prozak), a newspaper editor from Vermont who repeatedly warns of the danger of populist candidate Buzz Windrip (Thomas Times) getting elected president. "I’ve just listened to him talking for 30 minutes," he says after a speech. "I’m energized, but I can’t remember a word he said." The people are energized too, especially after Windrip offers them $5,000 cash to vote for him.
Prozak is great as Jessup, the voice of reason, standing up for democracy and standing up for his country as a true patriot even as a member of his family is taken away and shot. Thomas Times is superb as populist candidate and later president Buzz Windrip, bombastic and hungry for power, telling the people what they want to hear but not actually delivering anything. Although there are parallels with today, director Bruce McLeod chose Times for the role partly because, being black, he doesn’t look like our current president.
As Windrip is elected, he creates a totalitarian state and the country descends into a dystopian society where the workers become the masters, keeping order through violence and jailing of "slimy journalists" and intellectuals. The Minutemen, "a group of patriots, armed with the sword and the gospel," are deployed to rid the country of undesirable elements. Shad, played with menace by Jorge Diaz, used to work for Jessup but is now more intent on jailing him. Jessup refuses to bend to the will of the ruffians and publishes a damning editorial which is heavily critical of the new regime. Not surprisingly he is tried and sentenced to 25 years in jail.
Carla Befera as love interest Lorinda keeps us guessing as she turns from paramour to resistance organizer, and Gwendolyne Wagner hams it up as Jessup’s wife Emma, interested mainly in keeping the family fed. Seton Chiang’s baritone lends Bishop Prang/Effingham Swann’s voice a dangerous air of authority as he decides in the new order who lives, who dies and who spends the rest of their life in prison.
Director Bruce McLeod said that having seen the new production at Berkeley Rep, he felt it still needed some tweaking, and added a few elements to bring it into the present day. He’s done a great job. The play crackles with tension and there are bouts of nervous laughter from the audience as they recognize things that have happened recently, written about in 1935.
Jessup’s family fails in their attempt to cross the border into Canada, but luckily a resistance movement pushes shoots up from the dirt and we are given the impression that democracy will be restored. As Churchill said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others."
At the end, director McLeod brings the play right into the present as the assembled cast pulls out their iThings and gets onto social media to spread the word, "Make America Human Again."
Could it happen here? Has it already? This new version of the play was written and originally staged just as Trump was winning the election. His press-bashing and disdain for the truth don’t bode well, but by standing up for the principles of democracy like Doremus Jessup, we can make sure it doesn’t happen here.
What: "It Can't Happen Here"
Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills
When: Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 19
Info: Foothill College