Solana Beach, CA---If you are a fan of Arthur Miller you might want to take this opportunity to see one of his last produced (1994) seldom seen plays, “Broken Glass” at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. It kicked off the theatre’s 32nd season and will continue to play through Nov. 10th.
Miller’s most noted, “Death of a Salesman”, “All My Sons”, “The Crucible”, “A View From the Bride”, “After the Fall”, “Incident at Vichy” and “The Price”, just to name the more recognizable of his stage plays, always raise eyebrows and most likely draw the largest audiences. Recently South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa staged an all African American "Death of a Salesman".
The playwright's voice was the voice of America’s collective conscience laying before us the struggles we dealt with, on a daily basis, of our own moral compasses; the everyman’s version of growing pains in an all to often corrupt society.
His “Broken Glass”, a title that conjures up a myriad of images, is a cloth of a different stripe; it feels superficial. Its significance refers to the breaking of a glass in all Jewish wedding ceremonies, it brings back the horror and pain of the ‘The night of the broken glass” in Germany on that now famous or infamous ‘Kristallnacht’ in 1938 and perhaps it signifies the broken or shattered promises and pieces of the lives that the characters in this, his seemingly most personal play, inhabit.
'Glass' is not his best play and in many ways it appears to be the least compelling of those I’ve seen. It is most notably and overtly and without apology, his most Jewish.
Miller goes right to jugular identifying the struggles American-Jews were and are faced with in a country made up of immigrants. For some, wanting to leave that immigrant status behind and become as assimilated as if ‘throwing the baby away with the bath water’, was a battle well, and to some extent, successfully fought over the years. That was Phillip’s battle.
As the son of immigrants, himself first generation American in 1938 Brooklyn, Phillip Gellburg’s view of the American dream was to cast off all and any traces of his ancestry and adopt what he thought was ‘American’ without question. In that respect, he had to be different than his Jewish peers.
Phillip Gellburg (Ralph Elias) is what some might refer to as a self-loathing Jew and to a degree an anti Semite. (Yes, there are those). As we find him in “Broken Glass”, he proudly wears the badge of distinction of having a Jewish son graduate from West Point and becoming an officer in the Army rather than a lawyer or banker. Anything that distinguishes him from most other Jews is his MO.
He boasts that he is the only Jew in his firm, a Wall Street Bank where he oversees foreclosures in crisis. Other times, he would rather forget his Jewish status than fall into the stereotypical mold carved out by those who lump all Jews into the Shylock’s of the world category. (“These German Jews won’t take an ordinary job, you know; it’s got to be pretty high up in the firm or they’re insulted. And they can’t even speak English”.) To the contrary though, he pulls out his Jewish trump card when needed, as we see in his boasting.
As Miller’s “Broken Glass” unfolds, it becomes evident early on that Phillip’s entire married life will be laid out on a spreadsheet before him when he and the doctors try to figure out the cause of his wife Sylvia’s sudden bout of paralysis. He’s angered by the fact that every door that opens toward a solution in getting to the bottom of Sylvia’s paralysis points in his direction and he digs in deeper.
Ralph Elias, absent from the San Diego theatre scene for the past five years, is perfect as an example of the Phillip Gellburg’s of the world. One can almost feel his disdain, his impatience and impotence, his anger and most of all his repressed guilt as the layers of his personality unravel and he becomes vulnerable, naked before our eyes. His performance of Gellburg is stellar.
Sylvia Gellburg (Elaine Rifkin) is his panic-stricken wife. She cannot forget her roots and is suffering from what we learn is hysterical paralysis. We are led to believe that what she reads and sees daily in the papers as to what Germany and the Nazi’s are doing to her fellow Jews there, is the cause of her illness.
But of course, there is more. She’s frightened and angry with her own Government for not interfering, worried that it could happen here and abhors her husband and his off handed attitude about her concerns. She’s confined to a wheelchair; her legs won’t hold her weight. Hitler was hers and every Jews worst nightmare.
Ms. Rifkin plays the stricken Sylvia, with the sorrow and perplexity of a soul older than her years. Sadly she confesses that after twenty-five years of marriage she doesn’t recognize herself any more. The fact that she gave up a promising career to be a ‘good Jewish wife’, one who didn’t want to upset her parents, who stayed with a man she actually despised for the sake of family and as a result worked herself into a paralyzing conundrum, is her (pardon the expression) ‘cross’ to bear.
While she does manage to ruffle her husband’s feathers by his own admissions of guilt and neglect, there is a lot of soul searching to delve into here with regard to her character, around which this play revolves. The character of Sylvia is still a work in progress. More often than not Ms. Rivkin seems more doubtful than convincing.
When Phillip seeks out the advice and direction of Dr. Henry Hyman (David Ellenstein) a neighborhood physician who tries digging into the root of Sylvia’s hysteria, he is annoyed and perplexed at the Doctors attitude of what appears to be accusatory in manner.
While not a psychiatrist Hyman agrees to treat Sylvia whom he is convinced is suffering from a psychosomatic illness. Hyman’s wife Margaret, (Shana Wride) doesn’t think it’s a good idea for him to be involved with her treatment, he continues nonetheless even though this is not his area of expertise.
Ellenstein’s Dr. Harry Hyman tries every trick of the trade to elicit information from Gellburg about his marriage, his sex life and his own personal attitudes toward the Nazi takeover in Germany. The Dr. is the antithesis of Gellburg; a socialist by admission, he drops a Yiddish phrase here and there and seems at peace with his ethnicity.
He attended University in Germany before the war, is a womanizer by his wife’s definition, a doctor out of his element acting as a psychiatrist, a gadfly who shows up in Sylvia’s bedroom unannounced, has all he can do to keep his hands off his patient, Sylvia, and rides a horse to his office and back home. He is somewhat of a contradiction.
Mr. Ellenstein convinces on one level as the most down to earth character in the play but as a physician it doesn’t feel right. Perhaps I’m not used to his form of bedside manner and yes, I am old enough to remember house calls.
Miller’s Olivier Award winning “Broken Glass” is making its San Diego premiere. We have been privy to many of Miller’s works throughout the years. Just in 2004 Miller was spotted in the audience of the Old Globes production of his 2002 ‘Resurrection Blues”. The Old Globe has revisited “Death of a Salesman” in and in 2009 mounted “The Price”.
North Coast Repertory Theatre's Artistic Director David Ellenstein, who is being directed in this production by the talented Rosina Reynolds, has been bringing newer and more challenging plays to the north county playhouse. In a recent interview for the local press, he is quoted as calling ‘Glass’ ‘an intense play’…”It’s got good humor, but it’s a drama”. “In some ways maybe his (Miller’s) most personal”.
“Broken Glass” is a series of short scenes that act more like vignettes rather a steady flow as we follow the progress of the characters making up this Jewish composite that Miller has assembled. In truth there is a little bit of every character in each of each of us, but the degree to which one holds dominance is at the core.
Unfortunately these stock characters and short episodes are rather predictable, the transitions somewhat choppy and in the end, as it turns out, they (the Gellburg’s and the Hyman’s) are not as noteworthy or memorable as say the Loman’s in “Salesman”or the Keller’s of “All My Sons.
Shana Wride continues to impress with her wry looks and off the cuff humor as Dr. Hyman’s non-Jewish wife, Margaret. Her character brings in some much needed Midwestern philosophy and light humor while offering hot chocolate to all her guests, whether they like it or not.
Kerry McCue is Sylvia’s sister, Harriet, who provides Dr. Hyman with some interesting tidbits about her sister and her marriage and is perfect as the messenger and John Herzog is perfect as Phillip’s uppity, anti-Semitic boss. All do fine work in support.
Adding to the overall effect of the mood in the play, Cellist Jennifer Bewerse plays some haunting original music composed by Michael David Singer in between the scenes. She is behind one of the many translucent panels surrounding the stage, looking more like pieces of broken glass than anything else, designed with efficiency by Marty Burnett and illuminated by Matthew Novotny. Alina Bokovikova’s costumes complete the 30s look.
Playwright Arthur Miller, himself the son of Jewish immigrants, was indeed a complex figure. “Broken Glass” is another facet to his complicated personality as he grapples with his own sense of ethnicity through his characters, Phillip and Sylvia. It’s worth a look-see.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Nov. 10th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Ste D Solana Beach, CA
Ticket Prices: start @ $48.00