New Rep's "Broken Glass": Run of the Miller?

Anne Gottlieb & Jeremiah Kissel in "Broken Glass"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As its first production of the current season, New Rep is presenting “Broken Glass” by Arthur Miller, and attention must be paid to such a man. First unveiled in New York in 1994 (over four decades after his monumental “Death of a Salesman”), this was one of the revered writer's last works, yet it lasted just a scant couple of months (though it did win Britain's Olivier Award as Best Play later that year). Directed here by the company's Artistic Director Jim Petosa (who previously helmed the piece for Maryland's Olney Center, just two years after Broadway), it's not difficult to understand its initial critical and popular reception, given its highly melodramatic nature, but it's still the work of a writer who is arguably this country's finest playwright. As such, audiences should be thankful that this company has afforded us the opportunity to see and hear the play. Originally entitled “Gellburg”, the eventual title refers to the shattered shards of the American Dream.

The setting is 1938 Brooklyn, days after the infamous “Night of Broken Glass”, or Kristallnacht
in Germany. Sylvia Gellburg (Anne Gottlieb), a Jewish American housewife, has apparently been paralyzed by the event, quite literally. Her husband Phillip Gellburg (Jeremiah Kissel) has sought help from local general practitioner Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett), who posits that hers is a hysterical paralysis resulting from her seeing “some truth that other people are blind to” about the worsening situation of Jews in Europe. It later develops that she sees hers as a wasted life she “gave...away like a couple of pennies; I took better care of my shoes”. Phillip in turn is gradually revealed to be racked with self-loathing and disgusted with his own ethnicity. In conversations with Dr. Hyman and with his stereotypically WASP employer, Stanton Case (Michael Kaye), he grows ever more uncomfortable with his Jewishness. Commenting on his case are Dr. Hyman's wife Margaret (Eve Passeltiner) and Sylvia's sister Harriet (Christine Hamel). As it slowly (very slowly) builds to a climax, there are no real surprises, and the ending pretty much validates one's suspicions. Without revealing too much, it may be safely said that Sylvia finds herself unable to walk because her husband is an emotional cripple. Dr. Hyman states that we are all born with fear, and that it's how we deal with it that matters. He adds that in his view everyone is persecuted by someone, though he never sees anyone in the actual act of persecuting. In the end, it's the entire Jewish psyche that Miller is exposing.

The Direction by Petosa and the acting of the entire ensemble couldn't conceivably be better. Kissel is in his typically towering form even as he sinks into an abyss right before us, and Gottlieb is easily his equal, though more restrained and simmering. The rest of the cast, though not given a great deal to do, also measure up to Miller's wordy demands. As for the technical creatives, there is the terrific revolving Set Design by Jon Savage (full of glass elements), the suitably character-centric Costume Design by Molly Trainer, the strikingly stark Lighting Design by Scott Pinkney, and, above all, the evolving Sound Design by David Remedios (with ever more deafening tinkling glass).

This is a worthy start to a promising season, and, even if this play isn't top tier Miller, it gets a very respectable treatment. Any opportunity to experience anew the poetic words of such a master makes for rewarding theater. You might, after all, echo Phillip's ironic statement, at the play's end, that he “finally got the joke”.

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