WATERTOWN — Most stage directors will tell you it’s helpful to have access to the playwright when rehearsing, particularly if the production in question is not of a new work, when the writer’s involvement is typically expected.
So when Jim Petosa directed a regional production of Arthur Miller’s “Broken Glass” two years after its 1994 premiere, it was quite the surprise when the author of “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” offered up his phone number and said to call any time with questions.
“It was very easy, very friendly, very warm,” Petosa says of the handful of post-rehearsal phone calls he placed to Miller, reached at his Connecticut home, to talk about the play. “It became very unpretentious and unfussy and quite normal, and then it was almost a secondary feeling of, wow, we’re talking to one of the great minds of 20th-century American dramatic literature.”
At the time Petosa was directing the Washington, D.C.-area premiere of the play, at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland, where he was artistic director. Nearly 20 years later, he’s directing another regional premiere of “Broken Glass,” this time at New Repertory Theatre, whose artistic leadership he assumed in 2012. Performances begin Saturday.
“On opening night” in 1996, Petosa recalls, Miller “did an old school theater thing — he sent a telegram to the company wishing us well on the opening of what he called his ‘sad, little play.’ He had tremendous affection for these characters and for this story.”
“Broken Glass” looks at the relationship of a Jewish-American couple whose marriage is affected by the persecution of European Jews during the ascent of Nazi Germany. Kristallnacht, also known as “The Night of Broken Glass” — the multi-day pogrom in November 1938 when the windows of German and Austrian Jews’ homes, businesses, and synagogues were smashed, and an estimated 30,000 people were arrested and taken to concentration camps — has proven particularly disturbing to Sylvia Gellburg (played by Anne Gottlieb), a Brooklyn woman who suddenly finds herself paralyzed from the waist down.
Her husband, Phillip (Jeremiah Kissel), who proudly notes he’s the only Jew to ever work at his Wall Street firm, is always quick to point out that his name is not “Goldberg,” and seems to be struggling with issues of identity and assimilation. The couple looks to Dr. Harry Hyman (Benjamin Evett) to help Sylvia with her paralysis, but the physical examination turns rapidly to a psychological one, and long-buried marital conflicts rise to the fore.
Miller, who died in 2005, was a Jewish-American playwright; in “Broken Glass” he tells a specifically Jewish-American story. But Evett, who won the 2015 Elliot Norton Award for best solo performance (for the Poets’ Theatre’s “Albatross”), says the play’s themes of assimilation and group identity are broadly relatable.
“We all are part of groups, and we all feel excluded from other groups. It’s incredibly relevant today, particularly in America,” he says. “I think the whole Black Lives Matter [movement] and the whole immigration debate have to do with these very questions of who’s in, who’s out, how do I feel in, how do I feel out, and who do I want in and who do I want out.”
Gottlieb says the play’s richness is in its interweaving of historical events with the most intimate details of a couple’s marriage. Sylvia is most horrified, the actress says, not necessarily by the violence of the pogrom but by the complicity of citizens who acted as permissive bystanders.
“Ultimately this story is personal. It’s about two people in their own lives and their marriage. It’s not just about what’s happening in Germany. That’s a catalyst — they look at it in the context of ways they’ve been tiptoeing around their own life. They’ve been bystanders in their own life,” she says.
Kissel’s return to New Rep follows much-admired performances there in “Imagining Madoff” (he won the 2014 Elliot Norton award for best actor) and last season’s “The King of Second Avenue.” He says he hasn’t spent much time with the political and religious themes of “Broken Glass,” and wasn’t familiar with the piece before starting to work on it. But he says the sophistication of its emotional architecture quickly became apparent.
“I just know, in terms of blood and guts and tendon, it’s crafted by a master,” Kissel says. “All you have to do is work a scene a couple of times and you realize. [Miller] was definitely at the top of his game.”
“Broken Glass” has had an uneven commercial history, a fact suggested by the opportunity for a Boston-area debut some 21 years after the play’s premiere.
But Petosa became something of an advocate for the play after directing that 1996 production. He didn’t widely divulge his conversations with the playwright at the time, fearing that it would be almost too “vain” to do so. But in the centennial year of Miller’s birth, he says those memories prove a fitting tribute to the playwright’s approachability.
The director speculates that “Broken Glass” may have simply arrived too late in Miller’s career to be fully appreciated.
“Maybe it’s because it was written at a point in his life where his canonical plays were kind of already established in the firmament,” he says. “But I think ‘Broken Glass’ is one that will pass the test of time and could easily become a canonical play, as generations discover him after his lifetime. So I have a feeling the jury’s still out on where it will reside in the long run.”
Play by Arthur Miller.
Directed by Jim Petosa.
Presented by New Repertory Theatre.
At Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, Sept. 5-27.
Tickets: $30-$65, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org