…well, kinda. Sylvia Gellburg (Lise Bruneau) loses the use of her legs after reading about and getting slightly wrapped up in the horrors happening in 1938 Germany. But she’s also dealing with a sexless marriage and falling in love with her doctor, Harry Hyman (Gregory Linington). Her husband, Phillip, (Paul Morella) struggles with wanting to assimilate in a world that still seems to infer that he’s an outsider.
I was reading a similar novel, The Houseguest by Kim Brooks, at the time, and in the midst of grappling with the difficulties in being objective with stories about the Holocaust. Every time Sylvia griped about something going on overseas that I knew was only the tip of the iceberg, and every time one of the men would attempt to contain her emotions as overwrought, I found myself getting frustrated. I tried to understand their worldview, and found it easiest to digest when characters would talk about America being seemingly different–a respite from a 2,000-plus year history of antisemitic persecution. And indeed perhaps in 1938, to the average American Jew, Kristallnacht felt like “just another pogrom.” Dr. Hyman had a nicely explored backstory in Heidelberg (where he got his medical degree due to Jewish quotas at U.S. universities), so we also got to see his grief and denial about what Germany was becoming. He was very astute about “the persecution complex,” and how everybody, Hitler above all, felt persecuted by others, but never turned the mirror on themselves.
But over all, I’m not sure that it fully works, juxtaposing these domestic dramas against Kristallnacht. It would be like a modern-setting play occasionally interrupting a monologue on a failed marriage with anecdotes from Syria.
I attended the play on June 29 because of the cast talkback session after the production. Among other topics discussed (like the intentionally ambiguous ending, complete with Phillip wearing concentration camp-striped pajamas) the actors mentioned how this play was Miller’s attempt to connect with his oft-ignored Jewish heritage. That in itself feels a little awkward to me–exploring your feelings of Jewish identity as an older man at the end of the 20th century through having characters react to Kristallnacht when it was still fresh. This isn’t The Crucible, where the Salem Witch Trials are allegorical for McCarthyism. This is about struggling with guilt concerning a very specific event in history, and I suppose I’m always a little disquieted by viewing the whole of Jewish identity through the Holocaust.
In technical terms, the play was very arresting. With only a few props on a minimalist set the actors took center stage, and their interactions were riveting whether played for comedy or drama. The production team worked with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to project period imagery onto the shattered glass background whenever there was a transition between scenes. Udi Bar-David played a haunting cello, and the cast confirmed that he performed original pieces, which were recorded at the University of Maryland.