The New Repertory Theatre is paying homage to Arthur Miller’s centennial with a superb staging — a Boston-area premiere — of one of the dramatist’s later works, Broken Glass.
Broken Glass by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA through September 27.
By Ian Thal
2015 would have marked Arthur Miller’s one-hundredth birthday. Numerous theaters around the country have marked the centennial with productions of the dramatist’s better-known works. The New Repertory Theatre, in a welcome departure from the expected, is paying homage by staging the Boston-area premiere of one of Miller’s later works, Broken Glass.
Though the action takes place entirely within the borough of Brooklyn, New York, the broken glass of the title refers to the shattered windows created by the notorious Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. The SA, one of the Nazi party’s paramilitary branches, along with the help of ordinary German and Austrian civilians, smashed and burnt many of Germany’s remaining Jewish homes, stores, schools, and synagogues. Tens of thousands were arrested, and hundreds died either during the attacks or later from injuries.
As the play opens, Philip Gellburg (Jeremiah Kissel) arrives at the medical practice of Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett). Hyman is treating Philip’s wife, Sylvia (Anne Gottlieb), who has been plagued with a sudden and unexplained partial paralysis. Hyman can find no evidence of a physical cause; he is convinced that the symptom is the result of hysteria, brought on by her obsession with the tragic news from Germany. Even though he confesses to a lack of expertise in psychiatry, Hyman also believes that the key to Sylvia’s stasis is rooted in the psychosexual dynamics of the Gellburg’s home-life.
Doctor Hyman may be able to see through people and understand their drives – and even grasp the basics of the psychoanalytic theory of sexuality – but his lack of training and self-knowledge is evident. The swaggering, self-confident medico does not take account of, in psychoanalytic terms, the dynamic of transference and counter-transference. (He probably hasn’t kept up with the Freudian literature.) At times he shows an unprofessional infatuation with Sylvia; it is as if the now respected doctor is subconsciously driven to revisit his youth as a Coney Island Casanova.
Sylvia, though she cannot explain why her legs refuse to move, is self-aware of her herself and the historical moment. On the personal level, she knows that she has given up much to be married to Philip, and that she enjoys the attention that comes from her doctor’s house-calls. But she is also certain of her identity: in an argument with her husband, she proclaims, “this is a Jewish face!” Most important, she understands that what she sees in the newspapers is only a harbinger of something far worse.
Today’s dramas about identity politics are usually confident tales of empowerment. Miller goes in a far more radical direction: he creates a harrowing portrait of Jewish self-hatred. “Self-hating Jew” is a charge that has been leveled by and against Jews from a number of directions — religious and secular, the ideological left and right. Typically, this involves Jews adopting or excusing the attitudes, beliefs, rhetoric, and behaviors of anti-Semites – often with the benefit of increasing their status as individuals amongst anti-Semites.
Philip works as the head of the mortgage department at the Brooklyn Guarantee & Trust Company. (He brags he is the only Jew employed at a company owned and operated by what would later be known as White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.) However, when Philip first meets Margaret Hyman (Eve Passeltiner), he is offended when she mistakenly addresses him as Goldberg; he even goes so far as to insist that he’s not Jewish, but Finnish. He will only affirm his Jewish identity when it confers special status: he is not just the only Jew at Brooklyn Guarantee, but the only one to set foot on the yacht owned by his boss, Stanton Case (Michael Kaye). Philip imagines that his son, an Army captain and West Point graduate, will someday become the first Jewish general in the U.S. Army (in truth, that title may belong to Civil War-era Brigadier General Frederick Knefler).
Philip’s reactions to Sylvia’s obsessive newspaper reading reveals much about his opportunistic contradictions: While she sympathizes with the victims of German street violence, what worries him is that by reporting the goings in the Reich New York newspapers will give local anti-Semites some ideas. Otherwise Philip sets himself apart from Jewish life: he barely disguises his contempt for Sylvia’s family and, at a time when FDR easily commanded 82% to 90% of the Jewish vote, he is proud to be a Republican, just like the WASPs with whom he works. He is eager to prove to Jew and anti-Semites alike that he’s not like those other Jews. What frightens him about the Nazis is that they lack the kind of good manners that restrain his employer’s obvious anti-Semitism.
Philip Gellburg may be an extreme example of the self-hating Jew, but he isn’t the only one in this play. Harry Hyman studied medicine at Heidelberg because of the anti-Semitic quotas that existed at American medical schools. The result is that he identifies with German culture to the point that he cannot grasp Naziism’s atavistic power. He is convinced that Hitlerism is a fashion that will pass once decent Germans tire of the Führer and his kvetching.
The Jews of Germany did not hold to such sunny illusions. In January of 1933, prior to Hitler becoming Chancellor, the Jewish population of Germany was estimated to be 523,000. The ascension of the Nazis, along with new laws restricting Jewish life and outbreaks of paramilitary street violence, kicked off a mass exodus of German Jews. Before the Anschluß, Germany’s 1938 annexation of Austria, more than half of Germany’s Jews had already left. While some of those who remained may have naïvely believed, like Harry, that Naziism would soon burn itself out, many more stayed because of economic reasons. German expropriation of Jewish assets meant many could not pay the exorbitant exit fees or provide assurances that they would not become wards of the state wherever they ended up. Nonetheless, in the ten months following Kristallnacht, another 115,000 of the Reich’s remaining Jews would flee. With the beginning of World War II in Europe, the avenues of escape narrowed even further.
In 1994, when Broken Glass premiered, audiences might have felt history was repeating itself: The Rwandan Genocide had erupted only weeks before opening night; and while the Srebrenica Massacre would not occur for another year, the Western powers had already proven feckless and indecisive as ethnic cleaning in Bosnia, primarily by Serbian backed forces, generated another refugee crisis in Europe. (By 1993 it had become well documented,that Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces were under orders to rape Bosniak women and hold them captive until it was too late to abort the pregnancies.) Meanwhile, in Kosovo, Serbia had already begun enacting legal measures against the region’s majority ethnic Albanian population, laws that uncannily resembled the very same rules the Nazis had begun to impose in 1933. This would create another refugee crisis and lead to another war before the decade’s end.
In 2015, our associations with Broken Glass‘ conflicts may be different. Some may think of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust. But at the moment there is a massive refugee crisis triggered by unrest and violence in Iraq and Syria. Bashir Assad’s Baathist regime regularly commits atrocities against civilians, while ISIS’s strategies of genocide and sex trafficking easily make Assad seem the lesser of two evils.
It doesn’t take much imagination to arrive at a conclusion that Sylvia’s paralysis is a metaphor for, and protest against, the paralysis of the world’s democracies, not just in the 1930s but in subsequent decades.
Director Jim Petosa is deeply engaged with Miller’s story and themes. Without placing a personal stamp on the production — there are no auteurist touches — he ensures that the performances and design elements are in sync.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, miming paralysis can be a challenge for an actors; it is not simply a matter of not using certain body parts, but of manipulating them in an expressive manner. Anne Gottlieb’s performance as Sylvia draws on this paradox: in one silent scene, she gives us a memorable picture of the bed-ridden woman moving her legs about as if they were ungainly props.
Kissel has often played neurotic yet highly capable professionals who face up to life’s tragic dimensions: twitchy even as they inspire an outward confidence. But as Philip he is able to dig deeper into the twisty psychology of such characters: it is not just that Philip’s ethics are too weak to navigate the world into which he is thrown, or that his ability to provide has become the only way he can express love. His Philip is a doomed figure in the Nietzschean sense — a will-to-power has morphed into a will-to-self-obliteration.
Evett’s Hyman is an eccentric performer who may be a bit too much as ease with himself: an erudite man of the neighborhood who can jump comfortably from explaining the Greek roots of a diagnosis to Yiddishisms and informal slang. His linguistic summersaults are pulled off with the showy self-reliance of a circus performer on a high wire.
Of the supporting cast members, Eve Passeltiner puts in a smart, vivacious performance as Margaret, a rounded-out character who is there to make the professional and romantic elements of the Hymans’ marriage palpable. Christine Hamel is engaging as Sylvia’s sister, Harriet. Michael Kaye’s Stanton Case is what one expects from an upper class WASP of the era in affect and accent.
Scenic Designer Jon Savage has created a gorgeous architectural set for the production. Wood columns extend to the ceiling, a corporate-panel motif that points to the heights achieved by Harry and Philip’s rags-to-riches success stories. The large windows and the pieces of ornamental stained glass that sit between the columns connote both the wealth of the men and the fragility of life. Most notable is the carousel-like ring that revolves around Sylvia’s bed, allowing for quick scene changes in the play’s locales.
David Remedios’ fine sound design incorporates snippets of chamber music and broken glass during scene changes. Still, this prosaic literalism may disappoint some expecting echos of his imaginative exploration of glass’ sonic qualities in Israeli Stage’s production of Gilad Evron’s Ulysses on Bottles earlier this year.
Slightly more than a decade since his death, Miller remains the American master of pseudo-naturalistic dialogue. His language does more than reveal the personalities of his characters — it grounds their struggles in a particular time and place. On occasion, the script becomes a bit heavy-handed due to the needless repetition of facts — it is as though the dramatist did not always trust his audience to remember material from scene to scene. But this is a minor flaw. Miller’s play remains powerful, dramatizing universal themes of life, death, identity, and responsibility in the details of Jewish life in Brooklyn in the late 1930s. This is a historical drama that makes good on William Faulkner’s claim that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.