In 1938, Sylvia Gellburg’s world was breaking. The Nazis were overrunning Europe and Kristallnacht — the Night of Broken Glass — shattered any illusions that Jews could live quiet, undisturbed lives.
At home in Brooklyn, then still bucolic, her life was equally cracked. Her 25-year marriage to Phillip was tearing at the seams, yet neither wife nor husband could find a thread to mend their relationship. And one day, Sylvia collapses, her legs paralyzed. She’s stuck, broken, her once vibrant life in shards. And no one can figure out why.
Arthur Miller’s infrequently produced play “Broken Glass” is his most baldly and boldly Jewish. Theater J has revived this later Miller work. And though it is not one of his great dramas, it is prescient for our time. The piece, which closes Theater J’s first season under its new artistic director Adam Immerwahr, runs at the Goldman Theater of the Edlavitch DCJCC through July 9.
Director Aaron Posner strips “Broken Glass” to its bare essentials, eschewing an elaborate set for a video backdrop that displays historic and evocative black-and-white photos and film clips of Europe’s Jews during Hitler’s rise to power.
On the plank floor stage, just a few wooden chairs and benches serve the cast of six in scenes that toggle between the Gellburgs’ Brooklyn flat and Phillip’s office and a doctor’s office. Posner follows Miller’s stage direction that a cello should accompany the scene changes, for the cello for many sounds close to the human voice. Yet, strangely, the songs heard were not period pieces from Brooklyn, instead the Israeli cellist Udi Bar-David (on screen) contributed mostly popular Hebrew folk dance songs, an odd interpretation by sound designer Justin Schmitz.
The presence of Europe’s Jews — Hitler’s victims — is fundamental to this production. Projection designer Mark Costello worked with archivists from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to select photos and films from its archives. Cut through like shards of broken glass, they appear as memento mori in oversized pictures frames serving as the backdrop images. This design element contributed by Andrew Cohen serves as a stark reminder that the shadow of the Holocaust that hangs over the events — and over post-World War II American Judaism.
Lisa Bruneau portrays Sylvia as a vibrant, smart woman struck down by a mysterious malady. She’s baffled by the cause and sorry that her immobility has an effect on those around her, particularly her husband and her sister, Harriet (Michele Osherow in a strong supporting role). Interestingly, a surprising subtext (for Miller was no feminist) allows Sylvia to finally discover and use her voice after years of silence in her marriage.
Gregory Linington imbues neighborhood physician Dr. Harry Hyman with a magnanimous personality; he’s open, easygoing, curious and, for Sylvia, both highly attractive and easy to talk to. He diagnoses Sylvia with hysterical paralysis and dabbles in some amateur psychotherapy to uncover the cause and cure, to no avail. Dr. Hyman is very much the opposite of Phillip, a dark, brooding silent type, who, according to Dr. Hyman’s wife, “sighs a lot.” He’s as hard to like as Dr. Hyman is charming.
As Phillip, long-time regional actor Paul Morella is rail thin and tightly wound, a mortgage adjuster — the only Jews in a WASPish company, he proudly notes. But he frequently exhibits a self-hating attitude toward his Jewish identity, commenting on the stuck up German Jews or exhorting his wife to ignore the heart-breaking news of Jews in Europe.
Jewish identity is at the root of Miller’s “Broken Glass,” for in the shadow of Kristallnacht and Hitler’s rise to power, Sylvia can’t stop obsessing about the bad news she reads daily – old Jews being forced to clean the street on hands and knees with a toothbrush, children separated from parents, Nazis coming to power.
And while everyone tells her to ignore the pending doom, she sits in her Brooklyn home impotent, unable to act, unable to move. This inability to do anything in the face of a global crisis hits home hard in 2017, too, when the 24-hour news cycle inundates us with reports of global, local and national crises — from terrorism, both home grown and international, to alarming reports of racism and anti-Semitism, to an American government in daily disarray and turmoil.
Fear of action, fear of — to use an au currant word — “resistance,” fear of simply facing reality has stunted the Gellburgs. Their marriage, like many long-term marriages, has in many respects long been a sham. The impotency that has invaded their lives is a stand-in for the many millions of Jews, Americans and Europeans who stood by idly and allowed a fascist, murderous cancer in the guise of Adolf Hitler to overtake Europe.
“Broken Glass,” coming late in Miller’s body of work, is a not-so-subtle indictment of those who stood idly by as the Nazi killing machine that overtook Europe. Even costume designer Tyler Gunther’s choice of striped pajamas in one scene recalls the harsh striped uniforms of the concentration camps. It’s not Miller’s best work — the reason it’s not often performed — but it is most relevant in ways he could have never imagined for the growing instability and rising fascist tendencies sprouting on American democratic soil.
“Broken Glass,” through July 9, Theater J, Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW, Washington. Tickets start at $37. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.