The shock of current events leads to physical paralysis in Arthur Miller’s 1994 drama “Broken Glass.” It’s 1938, and a woman in Brooklyn suddenly can’t use her legs. Incredibly, it seems she may have overdosed on reports of accelerating fascism in Germany.
“It’s ridiculous!” Sylvia Gellburg replies when her husband, Phillip, says he thinks her problem is “this whole Nazi business.” “I can’t move my legs from reading a newspaper?!”
If the premise seemed a tad hyper-real when Miller wrote it very late in his career, it certainly rings true in our current hyperventilating moment. Yet Aaron Posner carefully refrains from underlining the play with even the subtlest of topical references in his austere, ferociously acted production at Theater J. In fact, the show — produced in association with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — looks like a 1930s artifact, thanks to projections of archival photos and footage on panes of broken glass.
Kristallnacht is the immediate backdrop, but Miller’s psycho-political mystery gives its characters lots to unravel. Posner’s staging astutely makes clear that Phillip, played like a man on the verge of a stroke by a tightly wound Paul Morella, is every bit as sick as his wife, Sylvia (a magnificently impassioned and sympathetic Lise Bruneau). Phillip’s Jewish identity is a problem for him: He’s a little too proud of his position as the only Jew in his mortgage company and a little too deaf as his boss talks about the characteristics of “you people.”
Miller layers into the Gellburgs’ marriage a depressing sexual history, and rather bluntly contrasts that with the masculine potency of their doctor, Harry Hyman. Gregory Linington doesn’t seem entirely sure how to handle Hyman’s much-discussed sensuality other than to genially deflect the flattery from Sylvia, the angry envy from Phillip and the stinging jealousy from his Midwestern WASP wife (Kimberly Gilbert).
Bruneau, on the other hand, seems like a flower responding to sunshine when Dr. Hyman attends to Sylvia. Incisively smart and believably distressed, Bruneau also toggles effortlessly to the outrages in Germany. It is in Bruneau’s performance, particularly, that the physical-emotional-intellectual components of Miller’s heady inquiry reach heartbreaking levels.
The script is mainly one-on-one dialogues, and Posner guides the actors — especially Morella — to a pressure-filled pace that never relents. The set of Posner’s blissfully comic “Or,” recently at Round House Theatre, was exuberantly overpacked with furniture and props, but here, the dark, small stage is narrowed to a point and furnished with only a few wooden chairs and polished benches. All the focus is on the case: why Sylvia can’t walk and how Phillip’s sublimated discontents are weirdly mirrored abroad.
The performance can’t relax, because the script isn’t exactly foolproof. Diagnosing Phillip is a far more belabored business than figuring out Sylvia, and the characters sometimes talk things to bits making connections that you work out pretty quickly.
Still, lines leap out, from Sylvia’s lament about her wasted life — “I took better care of my shoes,” she says — to Hyman’s remarks to Phillip about Hitler. “The perfect example of the persecuted man,” Hyman says of Hitler’s litany of complaints. “He’s turned that whole beautiful country into one gigantic kvetch.” The play labors hard over its wasted marriage, but Posner trusts its powerful flickers as Miller the moralist draws his stern civic map.
Theater J, in the Edlavitch D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. 202-777-3210. theaterj.org.
Dates: Through July 9