Broken Lives

By Geary Danihy

There’s a specter that haunts, Broken Glass, one of Arthur Miller’s later plays (written in 1994) that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse under the direction of its artistic director Mark Lamos. Set in Brooklyn in 1938, the play focuses on a Jewish couple, but as the play’s title implies, there is more going on in the world of this play than the problems the couple faces, for half a world away humanity is slowly yet inexorably losing its grip on its sanity. In Germany and Austria, Jews are being pursued and persecuted and glass is being broken: the glass of shop windows and synagogues. The horrors are being reported daily in the newspapers and on the radio and, in this often stirring production, they reverberate in the couple’s broken marriage.

Yes, Kristallnacht is the operative metaphor in the play, but it is the echo of a distant nightmare, for what this play really deals with is the “burden” of being Jewish and the introspection, denial and self-hatred it can sometimes engender. It is also a study of a marriage that is as brittle and fragile as glass.

Phillip Gellburg (Steven Skybell) is the only Jew working at an old-money mortgage bank. He takes great pride in this, as he does that his son attended West Point and is now a captain in the Army. After all, a Jewish boy attending West Point. It’s...

Yet Phillip is a porcupine embarrassed by his quills, a man who looks in the mirror every morning and sees: Jew. He has tried to assimilate, and in so doing has taken on some of the characteristics and views of those who would persecute him, for as he explains to Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer), the German Jews...well...they can be...Phillip waves his hand -- they can be pushy, difficult. It’s a chilling moment, for it reveals in a gesture, in just a few words, the price one must pay if one decides to “go along.”

He is meeting with the doctor because Phillip’s wife, Sylvia (Felicity Jones) has suddenly lost the use of her legs. Now bedridden, she obsesses over the news from Germany being reported in the newspapers, and the doctor, learning that there is nothing physically wrong with his patient, suggests that her problem might be psychological. The doctor’s wife, Margaret (Angela Reed), questions his deep concern for his patient, implying that the interest might be more than just medical, but he assures her that his concern is merely professional. Trying to understand the dynamics of Sylvia’s condition, he interviews her sister Harriet (Merritt Janson), who suggests that Sylvia’s problem just might be sexual.

The cause of Sylvia’s paralysis is never fully revealed, and its connection to events in Germany is, at best, tenuous. If you look closely at what unfolds during the 90 minutes of the play, what you thought might be made apparent is not and what you might have assumed the play was about turns out to be wrong. Because of this, once you are out of the theater and driving home questions might arise for which Miller has supplied no answers, but while you are sitting in the theater that doesn’t really matter.

Jones and Skybell, as the couple now skating on the frozen surface of their marriage, give riveting performances. The ache, the frustration and the thwarted needs in their characters’ marriage are palpable. Individually, Skybell gives us a man at war with himself, and his moments of misdirected rage are truly frightening and his need to dissemble when dealing with his boss, Stanton (John Hillner), is painful to watch, only because he captures something that goes beyond being Jewish and speaks to being human. We have all, at one time or another, kowtowed.

For her part, Jones creates a woman whose physical paralysis speaks volumes about the loss of love and the denial of desire. Confined for most of the play to a bed, Jones is able to convey an amazing range of emotions, many of which are captured and reflected in the mirrored set designed by Michael Yeargan.

In the long run, Broken Glass is less than the sum of its scenes, but many of the scenes are gripping and the entire cast never hits a false note. Lamos paces the scenes so that you never pause to question what is really going on, you don’t have time, for your attention is artfully focused and your emotions are manipulated. The manipulation (the word is not being used in its pejorative sense) continues until the final epiphanic scene, which seems so right, so fitting…until that drive home and those questions arise.

Broken Glass runs through Oct. 24. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org.

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