By Karen Isaacs
For the centennial of Arthur Miller’s birth, Westport Country Playhouse is ending its 2015 season with a fine production of Broken Glass through Oct. 24 directed by Mark Lamos.
Miller not only lived for many years in Connecticut but Broken Glass had its world premiere at New Haven’s Long Wharf Theater directed by John Tillinger (a frequent Westport director) in 1994 before opening on Broadway for a short run. By the way, the original production featured David Dukes (Dr. Harry Hyman), Amy Irving (Sylvia Gellburg), Ron Rifkin (Phillip Gellberg), Frances Conway (Margaret Hyman) in the four major roles. Ron Silver who started as Hyman in New Haven quit the production which had some problems.
Many have said this play most directly relates not only to Miller’s own life but to the experience of Jews in 20th century America. In reality it can relate to the experience of any immigrant group who finds their acceptance problematic and the issue of assimilation versus pride for their own culture.
The play is set in November, 1938 at the time of Kristallnacht in Germany; the time of “broken glass” as roving Nazi mobs broke windows, burned synagogues, looted stores owned by Jews and humiliated Jewish residents.
In Brooklyn (also the setting of several other Miller plays and where Miller lived as a teenager.) Phillip Gelburg (Steven Skybell) a middle-aged man who is an executive with a very WASP mortgage banking firm, visits the neighborhood physician, Dr. Harry Hyman ((Stephen Schnetzer) about his wife, Sylvia (Felicity Jones.) For the past 2 weeks, Sylvia has not been able to walk, stand or feel her legs though all the tests show no medical reason. She is also obsessed with the events that have occurred in Germany, reading the papers and focusing on a photograph of elderly Jewish men being forced to clean the sidewalk with toothbrushes as Nazis look on and jeer.
Hyman is puzzled by Sylvia’s condition but believes it is psychological in onset and may be caused by anxiety. He questions Phillip about their marriage and their sex life and according to him all is well.
Phillip has brushed off Sylvia’s concerns about what is going on in Germany; he views it as far away though he does admit some concern that the events will encourage American anti-Semites. He is proud to be the only Jew ever hired by his firm and that his son was one of the few Jews admitted to West Point, albeit with the help of Phillip’s WASP boss.
While Hyman attempts to treat Sylvia, he learns more about the marriage from Sylvia’s sister. All is not quite as Phillip told the doctor, particularly in the sex department. Phillip has apparently been “unable to perform” for many years.
As the one act play progresses we see conflicts within many of the characters. Phillip is proud of making it a Christian world and at times denigrates Jews –yet he is also aware on some level that his boss views him according to the Jewish stereotype. He is both trying to deny his religion and the stereotypes and also proud when he and his son, as Jews, succeed. He is worried about what is going on in Germany but feels helpless. To use a common descriptive phrase, he is “self-loathing.”
Sylvia is more in touch with her feelings but she is not just paralyzed by the anxiety she feels regarding the Nazi menace but also is unhappy in her marriage; she and Phillip have lead separate lives and she misses the independence of her pre-marriage career.
Dr. Hyman (the name is surely significant) is also paralyzed in some ways. He attended medical school in Germany because of quotas on Jewish medical students in the US and is convinced that the Germans will not continue to follow Hitler. His wife, Margaret, is Christian but it appears that he has not been a faithful husband. In fact, he seems to develop feelings for Sylvia, although they are not acted upon.
Broken Glass is a play in which Miller throws almost too many complications – I’ve not mentioned some on Phillip’s job that unsettle him and make realize how he cannot escape being a Jew. In addition, this is a play that is heavily Freudian in its symbolism and issues.
Mark Lamos gets the most out of the play and cast in his deft direction. He and the actors in the have created a reality for us.
Steven Skybell as Phillip lets us see the duality of the man – proud in many ways of his Jewishness and achievements as a Jew but also terrified that they will be stripped away. From the moment he corrects Margaret Hymen about his name – “Gellberg” not “Goldberg” which she insists on using, perhaps indicating how Christians view all Jews as the same – to the scenes as he realizes how his boss views him, Skybell creates a character torn between pride and self-hatred.
As Dr. Hyman, Stephen Schnetzer shows us a man more in touch with his reality but also blind in some spots.
The role of Sylvia is central to the play – we must be able to accept her paralysis and understand her strengths, her longings and her fear. If we do not always totally get this, it is less the fault of Felicity Jones – who is excellent in the role – and more the fault of Miller, the playwright.
The supporting cast is also excellent: John Hilner as Phillip’s boss Stanton Case; Angela Reed as Dr. Hyman’s wife, Margaret; and Merritt Janson as Sylvia’s sister, Harriet.
Lamos has assembled a fine production team including Micahel Yeargan for the scenic design which is suggestive rather than totally realistic, Candice Donnelly for the 1930s costumes, Steven Strawbridge for the lighting and David Budries for the sound.
Yet Broken Glass leaves the audience somewhat dissatisfied; too many elements, too much Freud; a too obvious message and a melodramatic ending all combine to make this a minor Miller play. Though it is just over 90 minutes, at times it seemed endless.
Broken Glass is at Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport through Oct. 24. For tickets visit Westport Playhouse or call 888-927-7529.