“Broken Glass” at Westport Country Playhouse

By Brooks Appelbaum

If you’re under the impression that Arthur Miller’s powers diminished after the great plays of the late 1940’s and 1950’s -- Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge -- you will change your mind after you see, as I hope you will, Mark Lamos’ masterful production of Broken Glass, at the Westport Country Playhouse through October 24. This play, written in 1994 (and Miller’s last work for the stage), is a 90 minute one-act, but Miller can fit more tension and emotional complexity in 90 minutes than most playwrights manage to capture in two hours or more.

The plot begins with a family’s mystery set against an international atrocity. In Brooklyn, 1938, Sylvia’s legs have become completely paralyzed, apparently in response to Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass), during which Nazis attacked and looted Jewish homes and establishments across Germany and Austria. The American newspaper accounts and photographs of Nazi brutality obsess and horrify her.

Her husband, Phillip Gellberg, seeks help from Dr. Harry Hyman, a physician who has a weakness for beautiful female patients and an interest in psychological approaches to syndromes such as Sylvia’s: he brings up the idea of “hysterical paralysis.” The good doctor insists that he has no experience with such cases, yet he cannot resist his wish to cure Sylvia, his attraction to Sylvia herself, and his growing sense that some kind of terror, much closer to home, may be the actual cause of her suffering.

Indeed, Phillip presents a strange version of the loving husband. At times, we believe his desperate avowals that he cannot live without his wife, and at other times, he seems oddly cold, angry, or mendacious. Sylvia’s sister tells the doctor disturbing stories about the marriage: why would she lie? The plot has the tense chill of a thriller, but Miller is exploring deeply complicated emotional territory in each character. By the end, he has succeeded, as few playwrights do, in creating stunning—in all senses of the word— catharsis.

Under Mark Lamos’ direction, every actor shines, and the prismatic set silently tells its own shattering story. Felicity Jones creates a Sylvia who is at once fragile and steely, and Steven Skybell, as her husband, Phillip, gradually reveals layer upon layer of fear and self-hatred. Embodied by Stephen Schnetzer, Dr. Hyman strives to be the calm, healing listener but fights constantly against his own demons. Mrs. Hyman, wonderfully played by Angela Reed, mirrors his struggle in her own way: this woman works hard to view life with sunny optimism and to rise above her husband’s roving eye, but her wifely patience is reaching its breaking point.

John Hilner and Merritt Janson create shining performances: Hilner, as Phillip’s boss of many years, could freeze a river with a look, and Janson, as Sylvia’s strong, loving sister, Harriet, provides moments where we can rest, if only briefly.

Michael Yeargan’s set design floats the characters in black, which is perfect for the dark and mysterious story that unfolds. And the jagged, shard-like mirrors that line the upstage wall and ceiling perfectly serve to disorient us, as these characters are disoriented, as well as enabling us to see Sylvia, who spends the play in bed, reflected from numerous angels. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and David Budries’ sound further plunge us into a world where deception takes all possible forms.

In addition to bringing us one of the strongest plays to be seen this fall, the Westport Country Playhouse, and Mark Lamos, specifically, must be commended for honoring Arthur Miller’s 100th birthday.  We learn from the program that “not a night goes by that an Arthur Miller play is not being performed somewhere in the world.” One feels honored to have attended one of those plays on one of those nights.

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