‘Broken Glass’ Star Talks Miller, Human Contracts and Jewishness

Arthur Miller’s riveting psychological drama, Broken Glass, directed by Aaron Posner opens at Theater J later this month. According to Theater J, the plot centers around “Sylvia Gellburg, who has suddenly, mysteriously, become paralyzed from the waist down. Her husband, a self-denying Jew, can’t figure out why. Set in Brooklyn throughout the rampage of Kristallnacht in 1938, this rare and gripping drama demands we confront our fears, our assumptions, and our anguish. Miller balances private and public morality in this astonishing and electrifying play about being American, being married, and coming to terms with one’s own identity.”

We sat down with actress, Michele Osherow, who plays Harriet, Sylvia’s sister, to learn more about her process as an actress, the play, Arthur Miller as a playwright, and how she connects to her Judaism.

Tell us a bit about your character in the play? Who is she, what motivates her?

I play Harriet, the sister of the woman, Sylvia. Harriet represents a kind of womanhood expected by America in the 1930s—or, more specifically, 1930s Brooklyn. She’s a caretaker: she cares about the color in her sister’s cheeks, about cuts of meat, about whether to call a family doctor or a specialist. She’s the archivist of familial facts. She takes her responsibilities seriously, and I think she’s very competent. She’s not compelled to question or to push against boundaries the way her sister is. Harriet’s eyes are open, but she’s not looking much beyond her block in Brooklyn.

How did you prepare for this role?

Mostly by channeling my mother’s cousins! Miller’s play takes place in Brooklyn. My mother grew up in Brooklyn and was very close with her Brooklyn cousins. I spent some memorable afternoons sitting at their kitchen tables sipping the coca-colas I couldn’t have at home. These women were always talking, and they had a way of making everything they said sound urgent and important. They had opinions (!) and funny ways of making them known. My mother was (and still is) the quiet, refined type, so as a girl I was always sort of alarmed and delighted by how well she got on with these bold-talking women. I’ve been thinking about them a lot for Harriet because, like my mothers’ cousins, I think Harriet has her methods for asserting authority and disguising those methods at the same time. I don’t think she hesitates to take pride in her contributions to making the world turn. I also think that for women such as these, love is something you do rather than something you say.

Do you consider this play to be Jewish?

The play overtly deals with issues of Jewish identity. The action is sparked by a woman’s—a Jewish American woman’s—reaction to Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). She becomes obsessed with images and coverage in the newspapers; and this event, though it’s across an ocean and in another country, triggers an awareness of other immediate forms of persecution and vulnerability. The play mines these on several levels, both public and private. Miller uses characters’ Jewish identity to get at the broader picture of the dangers of denial and disassociation.

He’s counting on our reading the play through the lens of history, so we know the devastating consequences of not reacting, of not feeling. The character is paralyzed by what she sees, which is a telling metaphor for America’s response to these events.

Other ways the play feels ‘Jewish’ to me are through its use of humor and metaphor, and patterns of language.

I heard you are Jewish. How do you connect to your Judaism?

I am Jewish, and I connect to Judaism in any number of ways – but the one that shows itself most is probably through language and literature. I’m an English professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and I both research and teach the Hebrew Bible as literature. I never get tired of biblical readings and criticism and how biblical texts get revised and revisited in Western literature. I also teach courses on Jewish American literature. There’s a flavor to Jewish storytelling, and I’m drawn to the kinds of stories we choose to tell—a mix of humor and pathos, truth and wonder. It’s a community that recognizes the value of a good story. The Bible itself suggests that language is a pretty powerful thing. G-d does his creating in Genesis by saying things, after all! And the psalms suggest that G-d appreciates a good turn of phrase. (Can’t help but admire that.)

What do you hope the audience takes away from this play?

There’s layer upon layer of possibilities for this one. Our director, Aaron Posner, was saying just today that what audiences take away will depend largely on what they bring: some might focus on the personal relationships the play explores, some the social, some the historical. Miller’s plays are always invested, I think, in reminding us that human beings are responsible for one another—that there’s a social contract to which we agree just by being in the world. Broken Glass suggests that the social contract is severely compromised when an individual ignores obligations to his or herself.

What are your thoughts on Arthur Miller as a playwright? Do you think he is a Jewish playwright?

I think Arthur Miller is probably the greatest dramatist our country has produced. His best works rattle you to the core. You don’t expect his deeply flawed characters will break your heart, and yet they do. Mostly, he tells the truth.

Is he a Jewish writer? He certainly taps into issues relating to Jews and Judaism throughout his career (both in his plays and in his novel), and it’s clear that he values the power of the word. Again, that’s a biblical inheritance. But I think his plays and politics might find the category of “Jewish playwright” too narrow. Miller’s litmus test for the value of the written word was to consider the work in terms of the question: “What is its relevancy to the survival of the race? Not the American race, or the Jewish race, or the German race, but the human race.”

You can see Osherow on the Theater J stage from June 14th to July 9th. For tickets and more information, visit their site.

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