Broken Glass at Pico Playhouse Review - Arthur Miller Intensity

Sylvia Gellburg (Susan Angelo) and husband Phillip (Michael Bofshever) try to cope despite their differences

(Westwood, CA - February 25, 2011)  As the first production of their new season, West Coast Jewish Theatre has mounted this production of Broken Glass by Arthur Miller at Pico Playhouse. The West Coast Jewish Theatre is known for presenting artistic pieces that explore different facets of the Jewish experience. In Broken Glass we zero in on a moment in time and a place –1938 in Brooklyn. With his creative insight, Miller gives us a magnifying glass on the lives and internal grappling of his main Jewish characters, all sons and daughters of immigrants.

The Gellburgs' crisis is both personal and political.

Georja: There is Phillip Gellburg, played masterfully by Michael Bofshever, a mortgage lender and the only Jew in his company. He is so ambivalent about his Jewishness that he often scorns other Jews and anything Jewish, although at the end of the piece he comes to realize that part of him wishes to be praying all day in temple. Then there is his wife Sylvia, the engaging Susan Angelo, who is obsessing about stories in the newspaper of the treatment of Jews in early Nazi Germany. She is not grounded in the here and now, evidently partly because of the lack of sex and affection from her husband. Her legs go unexplainably numb. Enter Dr. Harry Hyman, played dashingly by Stephen Burleigh. He is more of a bon vivant who tries to help Sylvia and later Phillip. He is much more in touch with his own personal feelings and even admits his attraction to Sylvia.

Gerald: Dr. Hyman is also Jewish and he studied for his medical practice in Germany. He says he's fond of the Germans, and he assures Phillip and Sylvia that the people he knew wouldn't be capable of such brutality, and that Nazism is bound to be a passing fad. But his medical diagnosis is much more accurate. He seems to know almost from the outset what is afflicting Sylvia.

Sylvia's paralysis seems hysterical, somehow linked to news from Nazi Germany.

Georja: Other characters include Harriet played by Renae Geerlings, the long-suffering concerned sister of Sylvia, who also puts in her two cents and has some very emotional scenes. Peggy Dunne plays Margaret Hyman, the more lighthearted shiksa wife of Harry, and Lindsey Ginter plays Stanton Case, the WASP CEO and yachtsman who owns Phillips’s company and refers to Jews as "you people."

Gerald: This was a time when some department store chains refused to buy goods from Jewish vendors. The doctor points out that he went to study in Germany because there were waiting lists for admitting Jews into colleges in the United States.

Dr. Hyman (Stephen Burleigh) comforts Sylvia, who appreciates his attentions perhaps too much.

Georja: The only one who is tuned in to the dangers and impending horrors in Germany is Sylvia, and it is too much for her to bear. Everyone else wants to blame her infirmity on her sex life or at least her lack of honesty and communication with her husband. All of them approach their Judaism from different perspectives: Sylvia and Harriet come from a close-knit family and would not think of going against their mother’s wishes; Harry, the most well educated of the group, has come to embrace socialism and see through the stereotypes. The most conflicted is Phillip, who grovels one minute and has fierce pride the next.

Gerald: Phillip's conflict about his Jewishness is central to the story. It's all about guilt. But in his loyalty to his employers and his officious manner with friends and relatives, he's the one who most resembles the Nazi oppressors. And Syvlia seems to be reacting as much out of fear of him as to nameless oppressors overseas.

Georja: Aside from the Jewish issues, Miller delves deeper and deeper into their personal lives, finding nuggets of truth and universally recognizable problems. He never shies away and keeps exploring the secret fears and longings of his characters, peeling away masks, then skin and bones to uncover the deepest essences. That is his genius.

Phillip is a mortgage banker, a foreclosure specialist, who can't help bringing his job stress home.

Gerald: Miller and many playwrights of his generation created a modern American drama centered on pressure-cooker crisis in the dysfunctional family. He also tended to infuse his stories with political symbolism. In Broken Glass, Sylvia tells the doctor about "this dark thing inside me," and we get that she's talking about the suffering that will soon take over Europe like the plague.

Georja: The stage was beautifully designed by Erin Brewster and lit by Leigh Allen. Costume designer Melanie Watnick did a fine job of conjuring up the era. And especially kudos to director Elina de Santos for taking on an intense piece and guiding the actors into such vulnerable places. It is a heavy show, and the only thing one could wish for would be a few more moments of levity, which perhaps could highlight the themes even more.

Gerald: This brand of theater is born of anger. Miller identified strongly with the working-class politics of the mid-twentieth century, and particularly with the union movement. Today it seems our plays are mostly about personal and sexual politics. Perhaps the pendulum is about to swing back the other way?

Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate. Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

Photos by Hope Oklahoma courtesy West Coast Jewish Theatre

Broken Glass by Arthur Miller

West Coast Jewish Theatre Production at the
Pico Playhouse
10508 Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 821-2449 - Group rates: (323) 691-3432

February 25 - April 17, 2011

Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm.

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