Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Production of a late, little-known play by Arthur Miller (1915-2005), is a cause for curiosity and celebration. The U.S. playwright is best known for plays like Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and All My Sons, which combine personal and political issues. Broken Glass, written in 1994 and now produced by Teatron, Toronto’s Jewish Theatre, also has this dual perspective. Directed and designed by Ari Weisberg, who founded Teatron in 2002 remained Artistic Director until he moved to Israel in 2015, is presented as part of Holocaust Education Week, 2017. The theatre has done excellent productions of contemporary and older Jewish theatre. Berlin – 11/09/’38
This production, too, is well worth seeing. The title explicitly refers to Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass, the night of November 9, 1938, when Nazis in Germany and Austria organized massive attacks on Jewish shops, offices, synagogues, and cemeteries, shattering thousands of windows, burning and looting. Many people were killed and injured, and 30,000 arrested. (Ostensibly, this was revenge for the killing of one German official by a Polish Jew). The attacks were reported in newspapers including The New York Times, news which helps motivate the action of the drama.
Broken glass also refers to the Jewish custom of breaking a wineglass during the wedding ceremony. This has several symbolic meanings: in joy, we also remember pain; relationships are fragile and precious, so cherish them, and a magic incantation, “As this glass shatters, so may our marriage never break.” This play, however, deals with the long-suffering marriage of Philip and Sylvia Gellburg, now at breaking-point.
The story opens with Sylvia’s sudden, mysterious paralysis of her legs, and we see Philip’s meeting with her doctor, Harry Hyman (perhaps a play on “hymen”). Philip, played with brooding intensity by Sam Rosenthal, is a Jew who hates being Jewish; he is embarrassed by refugees coming to the U.S. and proud of being the only Jew ever employed by his company. Dr. Hyman, also Jewish, is by contrast an expansive man, played in an engaging manner by Mark Albert. He enjoys women, while Philip is impotent, and he loves horseback riding (even in Brooklyn, where the play is set.) Although dismayed by the Nazis, he thinks that they are an aberration and the good aspects of German culture will prevail. Ironically, he studied medicine in Heidelberg because of Jewish quotas in U.S. medical schools. Dr. Hyman, an early believer in Freudian psychology, sees Sylvia’s paralysis as psychological, as tests show no physical problem. “What is it you know?” he asks her, in bedside psychotherapy.
What Sylvia knows is two-fold. Ermina Perez plays this role beautifully, as she moves from victim to self-aware woman. She realises, more than anyone around her, the horror and danger of Nazi brutality. She reads newspapers, despite other people’s protests that the news is upsetting and far away. Although her family has lived in New York for over a generation, she identifies with Jews hurt during Kristallnacht and wants action taken to help them. So her paralysis may be partly caused by empathy with the injured and helpless. In addition, she is an intelligent woman who worked in business until her marriage. Philip prevented her from returning to work after the birth of their son (now in the army, to Philip’s pride and Sylvia’s chagrin). She has been hurt – paralyzed – by her husband’s anger and lack of love, and by caring for other people at her own expense (a problem we still see today). “I took better care of my shoes than of myself,” she says.
Harriet Rice is caring and comic as Sylvia’s sister Harriet, and Leah Charney adds a tone of nurturing common sense as Margaret Hyman, the doctor’s wife, whose laughter hides her sadness. Philip’s boss, Stanton Case, Anton Zweig projects a patronizing, obtuse presence. The actors work well together as an ensemble.
Weisberg’s set is in tune with the realistic, “fourth-wall” nature of the play. There are three rooms, on slightly different levels across the stage, and the actors move easily from doctor’s office, to bedroom, to Philip’s work. I liked the shadows of buildings seen through tall windows. Liza Zawadska’s costumes catch the flavour of the times and the characters’ lives. Sylvia’s changes of outfit are effective, and Harriet’s dresses fit her personality. However, I wonder if I am the only audience-member who saw echoes of Nazi jack-boots in his large black riding-boots. Chris Malkowski’s lighting enhances the realistic feel while adding emotional effects.
The play is intelligent but quite talky, and Philip’s traumatic insight at the end seems a bit forced. Occasionally the pace is a bit slow, but this may improve as the run continues. It is interesting to see Miller continuing to work with interwoven themes of world & personal history.
Broken Glass runs at Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge St., through Nov. 18th.