‘Broken Glass’ explores emotional, physical paralysis

The theatre department continued to celebrate the works of Arthur Miller this semester with its production of Broken Glass last weekend in the Adams Memorial Theatre of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance . The performance was directed by Chair of the Theatre Department and Professor of Theater David Eppel. Set in Brooklyn at the start of Nazi rule in Germany, the play explores themes of paralysis, identity, forgiveness, fear and hysteria, both personal and national.

Broken Glass revolves around a small number of characters, providing an intimate snapshot of domestic lives in crisis. Elizabeth Stern ’14 portrayed Sylvia Gellburg, a woman whose legs become paralyzed just before the outset of the play with no apparent physical cause. As Dr. Harry Hyman (Alex Foucault ’15) and Sylvia’s husband Philip (John Chandler Hawthorne ’13) work to restore her health, the play delves deep into their interpersonal relations. At the same time, Broken Glass weaves in political issues as a backdrop to very private marital issues between Sylvia and Philip.

While Sylvia is initially the focus of Broken Glass, the audience comes to realize Philip is just as damaged as Sylvia, but faces different problems. Likewise, Hyman’s relationship with his wife (Justine Neubarth ’13) is also called in to question, though to a lesser degree. Philip’s struggle with his work, especially with his boss Stanton Case (Frank Pagliaro ’14), help the audience care more for his often unsympathetic character and help paint an image of the Jewish experience in 1930s New York. Sarah Sanders ’14 rounded out a cast of six as Sylvia’s devoted sister.

Broken Glass is laden with metaphors, most notably the correlation between Sylvia’s paralysis and the inaction of her country in the face of Nazi terror in Germany. Moments of witty humor lightened the mood of the play. However, many of these jokes served a higher purpose of exposing truths about societal issues of that era and arguably, today.

Interludes of darkness, in addition to short, superb musical pieces by cellist Patricia Ho ’16 divided Broken Glass into scenes of varying lengths. Ho sat high above the stage floor and behind the sets on the stage, which themselves were not altered in the duration of the show. This arrangement was particularly striking. Her melancholic and emotive playing replicated the mood of the many emotionally charged scenes of the play.

Scenes rotated through three regions of the set, designed by Cate McCrea ’13 for her senior thesis. The set was intricate and yet uncluttered, reflective of the play as a whole. Wood paneling covered the floor, and era-appropriate wooden desks, chairs and other furniture filled three sections of the stage creating the different settings of the play – two offices and a bedroom. Tall rectangular pillars formed the back wall of the stage, giving off the impression of a cityscape. These pillars also allowed for interesting lighting effects, designed by Julie Seitel, as different colors were cast on the pillars helping to define the mood of the scene.

The three different settings on the stage were distinguished by level as well as furniture, as some were higher than others. For instance, Philip often entered his boss’s office from below the stage, walking up stairs in the middle of the three sets, which created visual variety and added visual intrigue to an otherwise immobile play in terms of set and subject, as the catalyst for the narrative is Sylvia’s paralysis.

Every actor, especially Hawthorne and Neubarth, executed impeccable accents – intended to be from Brooklyn and Minnesota, respectively. This was a huge aspect of the acting in this show, as all of the accents were very strong. This could have easily been thought of as a task too difficult for this production. And, at times, when the actors slipped out of the accents, it was quite noticeable, if not jarring. But by taking on the monumental task of speaking in accents for the entirety of the three-hour show, Eppel and his cast showed a bold dedication to the original script. And the dedication paid off: The accents proved to make the characters across the board more convincing.

Despite the occasional feeling of overacting, the actors were convincing and sympathetic as sincere and troubled characters. Stern’s portrayal of Sylvia was particularly committed. For someone who was on stage for nearly the entire show, Stern never lost sight of her character. Hawthorne’s performance was equally strong, despite playing a very different character than Stern’s. In reference to Hawthorne’s many other roles with the theater department in the past, in which he usually plays very strong, aggressive characters, his portrayal of Philip was remarkably sensitive, despite moments of intense aggression. Hawthorne’s emotional range was certainly a highlight of the performance.

The play was notable for its small cast and long run-time. As Sylvia is paralyzed, there is little action in Broken Glass; and so the play relies mostly on potent dialogue. With so few actors, audience members were able to appreciate each character as a complex and dynamic human being, making their personas seem more realistic and engaging. Audience attention was challenged at times, given the length, however such a plot effectively reflects overarching themes of paralysis. While perhaps not the most revolutionary or captivating play, Broken Glass was produced and performed impeccably by the cast and succeeded in prompting deeper consideration of that era of Jewish American history.