Broken Glass, by Arthur Miller. Proscenium Compass Theatre January 21-24
Arthur Miller (1915-2005) was a prominent Jewish-American playwright and a winner of the Pullitzer Prize, but is probably equally well known for having married Marilyn Monroe in 1956.
He was a young man in November 1938, when a state co-ordinated pogrom against Germany's Jewish community resulted in multiple deaths and an orgy of abuse and destruction. This has since come to be regarded as the beginning of the Holocaust. It was called Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) and provided Arthur Miller with the title of this play, written 56 years later in 1994.
It tells the story of Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg, a Jewish couple living in New York at the time of Kristallnacht. It appears that Sylvia has been so traumatised by media reports of elderly Jews being forced to clean the gutters of Berlin with toothbrushes, she has spontaneously become paralysed from the waist down.
Dr Harry Hyman is called in, but can find no physical cause for Sylvia's paralysis, concluding that her problem is psychosomatic.
In fact, Sylvia's main problem is her prickly and inhibited husband Phillip, a complicated businessman who is both proud of, and embarrassed by, his Jewish heritage.
While his love for Sylvia seems genuine enough, he dominates and represses his wife.
During the course of the play, Dr Hyman learns more and more about Sylvia's personal life, from Sylvia herself, her sister Harriet and even from his own wife who, on first meeting Phillip, accurately sums him up as a 'miserable little pisser'. It's when the doctor/patient relationship becomes too intense, and Phillip's impotence is revealed, that the sparks really begin to fly.
As tensions mount unbearably, Phillip suffers a heart attack, which ultimately kills him. At the moment of his death, he cries out "Sylvia, forgive me", whereupon she rises from her wheelchair and walks to the bed on which his body lies. At that point the play ends.
Broken Glass sees Miller mirroring Sylvia's situation with events taking place in Germany. Sylvia's paralysis is a symbol of America's seeming refusal to recognise the evils of Hitler and the Nazis, even its Jewish community. The play also deals with the traumas caused by people's inability to communicate or to overcome their own repressions.
With the exception of the outspoken Mrs Hyman, the characters are unable to express what they truly feel. For them, public and personal denial, along with wrongly placed loyalty to one's family or religion, are apparently more important. In this play's case, such fear can literally cripple your life.
Directed by Anne Gerrard, this was another superb production from Proscenium. Within minutes I had forgotten that the six outstanding members of the cast were actors, so powerful were their portrayals of the characters. For two hours they were the Gellburgs and the Hymans, in a performance that was a flawless and completely absorbing tour de force.
Duncan Sykes, in the challenging role of Phillip Gellburg, prowled the stage like a caged animal, becoming increasingly demented as his world fell apart and all his flaws were exposed.
Angie Sutherland, as Sylvia, came across as a woman who had everything except what she needed most - love, both physical and emotional.
Anton Jungreuthmayer played Dr Hyman, effectively conveying to the audience his struggle to retain his professionalism, while Sheila Harvey, as the down-to-earth Margaret Hyman, provided some lighter moments, very much needed in a play bursting at the seams with angst.
Lynette Shanbury played Harriet, Sylvia's sister, struggling to be loyal while reluctantly revealing some of the skeletons in the family's cupboard. David Pearson played Phillip's boss, Stanton Case, the unpleasant face of American capitalism, and representative of the attitude to Jews so prevalent at the time. [25cf] Proscenium is back at the Compass Theatre from March 25 to 28 with Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra.
Find out more about the theatre company at www.proscenium.org.uk .