Frightened and dismayed by this dumpster fire of an election year, the creative team at Berkeley Rep decided to fast-track the adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's scarily prescient 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, a story about America falling under the sway of fascism at the hands of a single, populist, wildly dishonest candidate for President. First adapted for the stage in a rush by Lewis himself in 1936, the play sounded too thin and melodramatic to Artistic Director Tony Taccone, which is why, he concluded, no one had ever remounted it. But going back to the novel he found much more to like, and too many eerie parallels to our own time and, ahem, Donald Trump to ignore. "There are parts of the book that screamed out that this is not about a moment in time," Taccone says in a program interview. "This is about a pattern in American history... you have to ask yourself 'What is it about the system, the culture, the pathology that is endemic to this kind of political development?'"
Fast forward to the opening last night of It Can't Happen Here in a brand new adaptation by Taccone and Bennett Cohen, and directed by Lisa Peterson. The script, while certainly heavy-handed and predictable in moments, nonetheless proves to be some strong medicine for liberals in this deeply divided political era. Because, of course, it can happen here.
Sinclair Lewis, the author of Elmer Gantry and nearly three dozen other novels, was a social novelist obsessed with America's contradictions, and failings. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1930 he was the first American author to win the prize in literature he said, "In America most of us not readers alone, but even writers are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues... [America is] the most contradictory, the most depressing, the most stirring, of any land in the world today."
It Can't Happen Here centers on the small town of Fort Beulah, Vermont and its bookish, liberal hometown newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup (Tom Nelis). Horrified by the rise of a plain-speaking but wholly unqualified presidential candidate cleverly named Buzz Windrip (David Kelly), Jessup finds himself at odds with some of his neighbors, but decides to take a stand and encourage people to vote for Windrip's opponent and not to vote third party, because that would be useless. When Windrip is quickly and handily elected, and Jessup sees that Windrip's campaign volunteers have now become paid foot soldiers and informants in a totalitarian regime, he writes a scathing editorial that lands him immediately in jail.
Multiple acts of horror and violence follow, as well as the rise of labor camps and all-out concentration camps nationwide, and refugees fleeing to Canada. Third-party and Communist idealists land in the camps right alongside their mainstream left- and right-wing friends, and Lewis's message rings clear: Let this country's democratic ideals erode just an inch, at the hands of someone popular and conniving enough to seize total power, and America could fall into fascism the same way multiple corners of Europe did in the 1930's.
(Also, as the adaptation points out with some very obvious winks, the meteorological, cultural, and economic conditions of the mid-1930's were frighteningly similar to what we face right now: droughts in multiple southern and western states that led to The Dust Bowl, a recent economic depression that left millions unemployed, race riots in multiple major cities, and rampant xenophobia about foreign interests bent on terror.)
Peterson's direction of the large ensemble is sharp though uninspired, with a spare set by Rachel Hauck that is redefined via many rapid scene changes with furniture and props especially effective are American flags gone black, white, and gray. The cast regularly breaks the fourth wall to engage the audience and narrate, and this aspect works fairly well though at Friday's performance, despite some audience participation, it felt like most of the play's jokes fell flat.
Nelis is a staid and compelling center in role of Jessup, and Bay Area performer Sharon Lockwood is eminently watchable in multiple roles, including that of Jessup's wife. Scott Coopwood is a sinister delight as the dimwitted villain Shad Ledue. Kelly, while amusing in the role of Windrip, is confusingly double-cast as one of the liberal underground, and appears in multiple early ensemble roles as well.
While It Can't Happen Here likely won't have much of a shelf-life and hopefully will have none if and when Trump is defeated it's a thought-provoking and effective reminder that democracies are fragile things. Lewis takes his parable to exaggerated and improbable ends, but that's likely wise labor camps may not be in our foreseeable future, but it's doubtful anyone could deny that things have only gotten worse, and more dangerous, for our politics in the 81 years since this book was written. And yet so much is the same.
It Can't Happen Here plays through November 6 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets here.