In 1996, during his 20-year leadership at Olney Theatre Center for the Arts in Maryland, visionary artistic director/director Jim Petosa decided to stage Arthur Miller’s lesser-known play “Broken Glass,” and couldn’t believe his great luck when Miller, who was still alive (he died February 10, 2005, at age 89), heard about Petosa’s decision and offered to consult with the group.
“He made himself available to us for questions, talking with us… every day,” Petosa said last week. “When I announced we were going to do the Washington, D.C. premiere, he was so pleased! He sent us a telegram, wishing us well, saying, ‘I hope the theater does well with my sad little play.’ ”
Petosa, current director/artistic director at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown and award-winning theater artist, director, educator and leader, never forgot Miller’s graciousness and generosity. As a tribute to the playwright’s birthday centennial on October 17, Petosa is opening New Rep’s season with “Broken Glass.”
“It surprised me the play had never been done in the Boston area, so I thought it was a wonderful way to celebrate Miller’s birthday,” Petosa said, adding theaters throughout the country are featuring Miller’s plays this year.
Petosa has gathered some of Boston’s finest actors, including Anne Gottlieb, Benjamin Evett, Christine Hamel, Michael Kaye, Jeremiah Kissel and Eve Passeltiner.
Although the play is set in New York on November 11, 1938, the day after infamous Kristallnacht in Germany, it isn’t about Jews, Nazis and the Holocaust, Petosa and actors agreed. It revolves around a Jewish couple in Brooklyn, Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg, and Sylvia’s sudden paralysis, later that month, after her obsessive reading about incidents in Germany.
“Her legs stop working,” said Anne Gottlieb, who portrays Sylvia. “She doesn’t know why, but she thinks there’s a physical explanation and is told early in the play there isn’t.”
Renowned Dr. Harry Hyman (portrayed by Evett) concludes it’s psychosomatic.
“The Holocaust is a provocation, but the play is actually about the Gellburgs,” explained Gottlieb, “taking place in the hearts and minds of the people in Brooklyn and (showing) how they’re affected and changed by events in the other part of the world.”
Gottlieb, who lives in Arlington and is originally from Chicago, is accustomed to playing complicated characters. Like Sylvia, she’s Jewish and in her forties, so she identifies with her on those levels. She also studied the Holocaust and realized what people are capable of doing through their own darkness.
Gottlieb said at that time President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in a wheelchair. In 1938, the word Holocaust didn’t exist. Americans were aware people in Europe were arrested, but didn’t know where they were taken. Sylvia is starting to pick up on that terror. “Her body, nervous system, is responding to that. She doesn’t understand, but, intuitively, she knows alarm systems must be raised.
“We respond deeply about things around us,” she added. “There’s something in Sylvia’s own life, something happening in Germany that she hasn’t looked at herself.”
Gottlieb added the play is timeless, universal, especially today, because of events occurring here, in the Mideast and throughout Europe, yet we go on with our daily lives.
Sylvia’s husband, Phillip, has a complex relationship to his Jewishness, Gottlieb added. He harbors ambivalence around being a Jew. Arthur Miller understood it and what it meant in the larger scope of society….being divided within yourself.
Veteran actor Jeremiah Kissel, who is also Jewish, personally conflicts with Phillip. “He has a Jewish identity crisis. l don’t,” he said.
Kissel admitted he hadn’t heard of “Broken Glass” before. “When I read the play, I was a little confused by it, so I’m now learning about it,” he said. “I’m like a plumber or carpenter. I get the blueprints and go to work.”
Kissel said the play is a universal look at outside pressures and their effect on humanity.” The play isn’t about the Nazis; it’s about fear and how humans handle fear,” he said.
“Those forces are still at work today. We see them around us in lots of different places…. The play is a chilling reminder of what they can lead to,” he said.
Through September 27 at the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $30-$65. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.