Broken Glass

Ben Miles Reviews - Theater
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Tennessee Williams’ latter day plays—though unappreciated during his lifetime—are now having a revival of sorts around the country. New York is offering productions of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (from 1963), as well as The Wooster Group’s far-out interpretation of Vieux Carre (1977), while here in Southern California, A Noise Within Theatre Company is gearing up for what promises  to be a top-notch staging of Williams’ sub-popular, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale (1964).

But Williams isn’t the only iconic American dramatist to be ill-considered in the twilight of his career. The late, great Arthur Miller, known for such culturally impactful scripts as Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953) is also seeing a renaissance of his autumnal work here in So Cal in the form of a 1994 play he titled simply and horrifically, Broken Glass, produced by the West Coast Jewish Theatre at the Pico Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Set in 1938, Brooklyn, New York, one Phillip Gellburg (Michael Bofshever in a pitch-perfect performance) is paying a visit to a physician, Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Burleigh, extraordinary). It seems that Gellburg’s wife, Sylvia (a complex and compelling Susan Angelo), is the victim of a sudden, unexpected, and inexplicable paralysis—which has confined her to a rotation between bed-rest and a wheelchair. Sylvia’s recent dehabilitation happens to coincide with the events that newspapers are calling Kristallnact—the infamous “Night of Broken Glass,” wherein the Nazi’s unleashed government-sponsored vandalism and terror against German Jews. Is Sylvia suffering a psychosomatic reaction? Is hers a physical dis-eased response that is primal and deeply-rooted—the stuff of nightmares? Yes on both counts.

Miller’s daring and intelligent narrative provides an examination of personal and cultural identity. In Phillip Gellburg we see a man who longs to be seen as a unique individual, not as part of a Jewish monolith. Though not a psychiatrist, the assimilated Dr. Hyman—an American Jew who attended medical school in Germany due to a stateside quota system that limited Jewish enrollments— strives to make it clear that all people have some burden or injustice to bear, not just Jews. Phillip, however, insists that what Jews suffer is qualitatively different from other people’s tribulations. Strangely, Sylvia’s affliction happens to intersect with her deteriorating marriage to Phillip, as well as the fascist outrages that are spreading like a plague across Europe.

With stellar performances across the board(s)—including Peggy Dunne as Margaret, Rene Geerlings as Harriet, and Lindsey Ginter as Stanton Chase—Elina de Santos’ potent direction propels Miller’s conceit forward in a most dramatic fashion. Additionally, Erin Brewster’s split-scene set design is evocative of the period and place. Also, Melanie Watnick’s costumes are a retro-blast to our World War Two past. What’s more, Leigh Allen’s lighting lends a slightly aged, historic quality to the proceedings. Although “Broken Glass” might not be described as a good time in the theater, per se—a challenging plot, crisp characterizations, and high production values make this 2 ½ hour show well worthwhile.

Broken Glass continues at the Pico Playhouse—10580 Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles—through April 17. Show times are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations, dial (323) 821-2449. For online ticketing, visit www.wcjt.org.