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She's Not So Delicate in Miller's 'Glass' : Theater: Best known for playing sweet souls in 'Carrie' and 'Yentl,' Amy Irving delves into a more dynamic role.

March 22, 1994|FRANK RIZZO | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Meet Phillip and Sylvia Gellburg, two haunted characters in Arthur Miller's new play, "Broken Glass." The Gellburgs live in Brooklyn in 1938, and their story is set against the Nazi violence occurring in Germany.

"Broken Glass" takes its title from Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass," when Nazi storm troopers went on a systematic rampage against Jews and Jewish property. It was a warning, ignored by many, of the horror of the Holocaust to come.

In the play, which has its world premiere Wednesday at the renowned Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and opens on Broadway in late April, Sylvia suddenly becomes paralyzed, set off by news reports from Germany.

But, while the story of the Gellburgs can serve as a metaphor for events of the past as well as the present (read Bosnia), it also is an examination of a personal relationship between two complex people.

Amy Irving, who originates the role of Sylvia, says of the character, "She's a very strong woman who recognizes at this point in her life how much she has pushed down who she is in order to conform to a marriage.

"She recognizes the passivity of her life and is at the point where she either lets herself be buried that way or fights to come out from under that."

In the plight of the Jews in Germany, Irving says, Sylvia recognizes her own passivity in her marriage: "She wonders why (the Jews) stay in Germany. She looks at a picture of an old man scrubbing the streets with a toothbrush and people laughing, and she sees herself."

Although most people may remember Irving as a sweet soul in such films as "Carrie," "Yentl" and "Crossing Delancey," her stage work has reflected the range of a classical actress. She has played characters created by Shaw, Chekhov and Shakespeare on Broadway, Off-Broadway and at regional theaters.

But, says Irving, now 40, Sylvia is one of the most dynamic characters she has ever played.

"She's highly charged emotionally," Irving says. "She has a lot bubbling up. She's like a volcano. I don't think she's fragile. I think she's extraordinarily strong. I think she's just strong enough to hold it down until it erupts--and you're going to see her erupt."

The role will wipe out her image as a fragile beauty, she says.

"Nobody is ever going to think of me as a delicate, beautiful woman after they see this play," Irving says. "There's nothing that's going to put 'delicate' in your vocabulary when you deal with me again."

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Ron Rifkin, who plays Phillip, says his character is a man "who is trapped in some kind of strange belief system of the time," stuck in this world of images and how you should be, wrongly comforted in the false security of assimilation.

"But he finds that everything is disintegrating around him, everything is falling apart, everything is breaking," Rifkin says.

Phillip is challenged by his inability to recognize the horror of what is happening in his own intimate world as well as the world in general, he says.

"If Phillip would ever deal with all the pain that is in him, he would crumble and perish," says Rifkin, who riveted audiences with another anguished character in Jon Robin Baitz' "The Substance of Fire."

Although the 78-year-old Miller has introduced new works in London, Off-Broadway and at regional theaters in the last decade or so, "Broken Glass" will mark his first appearance on Broadway since "An American Clock" in 1980. He had earlier triumphs on Broadway with "The Crucible," "All My Sons," "The Price" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Death of a Salesman."

Besides Irving and Rifkin, the production stars Ron Silver as the family physician. Also featured are Frances Conroy, Lauren Klein and George N. Martin. Sets and costume design are by Santo Loquasto.

The play is characteristically Arthur Miller, Rifkin says, "because of the issues he deals with. The whole question of the moral conscience of the people is unmistakably Miller."

Both Rifkin and Irving are happy to be in New Haven originating the roles of Sylvia and Phillip Gellburg.

"To work on a great new play by a great writer is the stuff actors dream about," Rifkin says.

And Irving calls the experience "a dream come true."

"If I were ever to say where I would want to be at this point of my life, I'm exactly here," she says. "It's a thrill and an honor originating an Arthur Miller role."

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