WATERTOWN — Back in the 1950s, Arthur Miller was the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning author of “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “The Crucible,” and “A View From the Bridge” — not to mention the husband of Marilyn Monroe. From then until his death, in 2005, he was considerably less celebrated. So it’s good to have New Repertory Theatre observing his centenary with a late work, 1994’s “Broken Glass.” New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa is familiar with the play, having directed it at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland in 1996. Now he’s giving “Broken Glass” its Boston-area premiere, and the production, anchored by multiple Elliot Norton Award winner Jeremiah Kissel, is worthy of Miller at his best.
The play takes place in 1938, and the title refers to “Kristallnacht” (“The Night of Broken Glass”), a pogrom carried out in November of that year in which the windows of Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues in Germany and Austria were smashed and some 30,000 people were sent to concentration camps. But “Broken Glass” is set in Miller’s Brooklyn, where Sylvia Gellburg finds herself paralyzed from the waist down after reading newspaper accounts of the atrocity. Her husband, Phillip, the only Jewish employee of Brooklyn Guarantee and Trust, takes her to Dr. Hyman, who suspects it’s a case of hysterical paralysis, and brought on not solely by events in Germany.
“Broken Glass” ran for only two months on Broadway, where it received mixed reviews. The play does verge on melodrama, and yet Miller’s themes are as timely now as they were in the 1950s. Phillip is ambivalent about being Jewish; he flares up when people call him “Goldberg” and insists his family is from Finland. Sylvia isn’t just traumatized by what’s happening in Germany, she’s traumatized by everyone else’s calm acceptance of it.
It transpires that Phillip’s relations with his wife — or rather, the lack of them — is part of the problem. Phillip in turn has a problem with his boss, Stanton Case, and there are moments when Sylvia finds in Harry Hyman what she can’t in her husband. “Broken Glass” is a play of delicate dialogues in which everyone tiptoes around unpleasant truths. The title also alludes to the breaking of a glass at a Jewish wedding, and there are neat ironies everywhere, like the statement that “a Jew in love with horses is something I never heard of” from a man, Phillip, whose own name means “love of horses.”
Jon Savage’s New Rep set is similarly neat. A turntable rotates to bring the offices of Harry Hyman and Stanton Case front and center. Harry, who’s the horseman, has a statue of Pegasus on his modest bookcase; Stanton’s office boasts leather chairs and decanters of rye, scotch, and brandy. Sylvia’s upstage bed slides forward, and her wheelchair is a vintage wooden model. Molly Trainer’s period costumes follow Miller’s instructions right down to the seamed stockings on Harry’s wife, Margaret; David Remedios’s sound picture includes a continuous tinkle of breaking glass that gets louder as the play reaches its conclusion.
The cast could hardly be better. Kissel’s harried, exasperated, perpetually uncomfortable Phillip is a man at war with himself and his ethnicity. Anne Gottlieb is a testy, short-tempered Sylvia who shuts out her husband but blooms for her doctor. Benjamin Evett is a bluff, hearty Harry who can’t hide his feelings for Sylvia; Eve Passeltiner is an appropriately intuitive, insinuating Margaret, and Michael Kaye a patronizing but not unkind Stanton Case. Christine Hamel as Sylvia’s sister Harriet squirms delightfully through the scene where Harry gets some truth out of her.
Toward the end, there’s a lot of ranting for a play that doesn’t provide much in the way of catharsis. But this production reminds us that Miller had as much to say at the end of his career as he did at the beginning.
Play by Arthur Miller. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Arsenal Center for the Arts, Charles Mosesian Theater, Watertown, through Sept. 27. Tickets: $45-$65, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.