Being a fan of Arthur Miller and Mark Lamos, I jumped at the chance to review this production. I remember Mr. Lamos from his days at Hartford Stage and his interesting, artistic bends with classical works, and was pleased to see those elements were alive and well with his direction of Broken Glass. Mr. Lamos’ vision and direction delivers in nuance and darkness.
Arthur Miller wrote this play later in his career (it premiered at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven before going to Broadway for a 73 performance run in 1994), and it displays elements of his earlier works: fear, deceit, insecurity, and the human condition, with a decided emphasis on “Jewishishness” – more so than his other works. The atmosphere is set immediately: a Jewish couple is married and the groom steps on a glass to commemorate the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. It follows with the sounds of breaking glass, chaos, and screams to set the stage for the time period of the play: shortly after November 9-10, 1938. Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – was the marked beginning of anti-Semite pogroms in Germany to vandalize and destroy Jewish businesses and places of worship.
Brooklyn denizen Philip Gellburg (Steven Skybell), a successful businessman working at an insurance company is consulting with the family doctor about his wife Sylvia’s (Felicity Jones) mysterious illness: she suddenly has become paralyzed from the waist down and cannot walk. Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer) believes the problem to be psychosomatic since all tests reveal no physical ailment. The more the doctor investigates the problem, the deeper he becomes involved in the crumbled relationship between Philip and Sylvia. It is a marriage of miscommunications and misunderstandings, coupled with an extreme lack of self-awareness on Philip’s part: he seemingly has no idea that his abrupt, boisterous outbursts and sudden acts of violence (that we only hear about and never witness) could be pushing his wife away, a woman that he “worships.” The psychological twists and turns, with the backdrop of an event like Kristallnacht, provides tension and darkness that keeps the audience engrossed. It is 90 minutes of film noir with an ending that is shocking, yet not.
Mr. Skybell portrays Miller’s self-loathing, Jewish Everyman with skill: he finely walks the line between bravado and breakdown. We see his self-loathing almost at the top of the show as he makes small talk with Margaret Hyman (Angela Reed): the correction of the pronunciation of his last name and its origins emphasize his need to be someone that he’s not - sometimes. The audience watches helplessly as Philip’s insecurities are revealed bit by bit as he steers himself into collapse toward the end of the show. He gives a masterful performance of a complex man struggling with identity.
Ms. Jones too gives a fantastic performance as the oppressed, overwhelmed Sylvia. She provides subtle layers to her character that are revealed piecemeal: an underlying strength and intelligence that is overshadowed by fear of the world around her. You feel her anxiety and her loneliness. Her honest performance shines on stage.
Mr. Schnetzer’s Dr. Hyman is the emotionally-intelligent orchestrator of the play. Despite the doctor’s insistence that he is an amateur psychologist, his accidental ability to guide this couple into self-revelation is what makes his character so riveting. His probing questions are the cornerstone of therapy, but he struggles with neutrality. His feelings often go beyond doctor-patient, but he (mostly) manages to keep it in balance. His melodious voice is perfect: another distinctive performance.
The minimalist scenic design by Michael Yeargan works perfectly to create the needed spaces (bedroom, doctor’s office, and business office) while providing an angular strain that adds to the play’s atmosphere. My favorite touch is the reflective upper portion of the stage: everything is mirrored back to the players, yet the only ones capable of true self-reflection are the Hymans. The angles of the mirrors also provide a way for the performers to hide things from each other, but not from the audience.
The lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge too is subtle, but adds to the drama of the scenes, especially when there is discussion of potential spiritual possession as the cause of Sylvia’s infliction. Sound design by David Budries provides additional film noir elements with understated sounds that help to create the right atmosphere; the sound overall was wonderful: actors were heard perfectly without sounding amplified.
The poignancy of this script to today’s world did not escape this audience member – pogroms are terrorism, are they not? This play takes place right after the Great Depression, amid a war, with a particular group of people as the scapegoats. As Dr. Hyman astutely says to Philip, "And supposing it turns out that we’re not different [Jews and Gentiles], who are you going to blame then?" Indeed.
For a thought-provoking, cerebral production with psychological spirals, look no further than this production of Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse. Now playing through October 24. For tickets, go to www.westportplayhouse.org.