Fifty years after Hitler’s downfall, Arthur Miller wrote this oblique but penetrating drama about a 1930s Brooklyn Jewish couple whose marriage falters in the long shadow of Kristallnacht. Tara Fitzgerald now joins Antony Sher in Iqbal Khan’s superbly acted production, first seen at the Tricycle Theatre, now furnishing the West End with a beautifully refurbished American classic.
Sher does a wonderful job with Miller’s protagonist Philip Gellburg: he brings a twang of real awfulness as well as deep sympathy to this prejudiced, buttoned-up company man, who forecloses mortgages and cringes before his Wasp boss like a timorous two-bit Brooklyn Shylock. Fitzgerald is a revelation as his poised and lonely wife, Sylvia, who loses the use of her legs after she becomes obsessed by the news from Germany.
The shattering question of Sylvia’s paralysis is the play’s main trajectory. Is it physical or psychological? Either way, it cracks the windows of several glass houses: conventional marriage, emigrant complacency, and that fragile edifice of history and parochial vanity which comprises cultural identity.
Fitzgerald’s Sylvia is touchingly, comically desperate for sexual fulfilment, draping herself transparently in silk when the doctor calls. Stanley Townsend’s straying would-be-Freudian GP is a splendidly middle-aged cross between Bill Clinton and Marlon Brando, a ladies’ man whose battered charisma springs from warm intelligent curiosity. He is the opposite of Sher’s Gellburg, whose overwhelming love for his frustrated wife is his only visible generous impulse.
Khan’s production is oddly framed by a scratched Perspex backdrop but the naturalism and insight of the performances are nearly flawless. Miller’s writing, as so often, registers the seismic political events that set the beat of individual disappointment and desire. But this fine ensemble makes the characters unforgettable, as they strive to slough off the skin of their small existence and become large enough to love each other candidly.