Written in 1994, the story is set in November 1938, in the days just after Kristallnacht. In Brooklyn housewife Sylvia Gellburg is horrified by newspaper reports from Germany. Her husband Philip, boastful of being “the only Jew ever” to succeed at a leading Wall Street bank, shrugs his shoulders over the “Nazi carryings-on” because, really, “what can be done about such things?” – it’s nothing to do with him.
Except, of course, as always with Miller, it is. The political becomes personal when Sylvia is suddenly paralysed. A distraught Philip seeks help from Dr Hyman, who diagnoses Sylvia’s condition as psychosomatic and sets about administering a talking cure. Through this, we learn that Sylvia’s suffering is not just empathy for her European counterparts – the “broken” also relates to fractures in her marriage. She and her husband have built a life together where fear flourishes, sexual desires are repressed and happiness is never within reach. In the end, they bear out in spades Dr Hyman’s theory that “we get sick in twos”.
Antony Sher is superb as Philip, a bottled-up “miserable little pisser” in perpetual black. When his facade occasionally cracks – with worshipful tenderness for his wife, with impotent outrage at workplace prejudice and, finally, with forgiveness and the ultimate sacrifice that liberates Sylvia – the effect is startling. Lucy Cohu appears visibly haunted by the ghosts in her relationship, and atremble at both missed opportunities and reawakened sexuality.
Nigel Lindsay (incredibly, next to be seen as the titular green ogre in Shrek) oozes the virile charisma that holds all others in thrall, and there’s sterling support from the ever-quirky Madeleine Potter as his wife and a tight-lipped Emily Bruni as Sylvia’s sister. Iqbal Khan’s intelligent production - played out on Mike Britton’s spare impressionistic set, with its peeling paint walls, curtains of translucent plastic, industrial lightbulbs and an ever-present bed – smooths over some of the more awkward and overtly symbolic moments in Miller’s script to send you out contemplating the destruction we wreak on the lives of ourselves and those we love most.