You might call director Elina de Santos an Arthur Miller groupie — not to trivialize, but to celebrate, her lifelong devotion to the works of the man she considers America’s greatest playwright.
“I read Death of a Salesman when I was 15 and was completely stunned by it,” she says.Â “The humanity of it just grabbed me.”Â De Santos illustrates her point by clutching at the air in front of her.Â “I actually met Miller once,” she continues.Â “It was at a performance of The Rose Tattoo, and I went up to him and asked him to autograph my program.”Â She laughs as she acknowledges her youthful captivation, adding, “Of all the famous people I’ve met and worked with since, he’s the only one I’ve ever asked for an autograph.”
De Santos is continuing her odyssey through Miller’s works (she has directed many of them) with his 1994 play, Broken Glass, the current production at the Pico Playhouse in west L.A.Â A dark and brooding drama, Broken Glass depicts the effects of the1938 Kristallnacht attack on Germany’s Jews on a Jewish family in Brooklyn.
Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass,” in which Nazi toughs throughout Germany broke windows and vandalized synagogues and shops owned by Jews, presagedÂ the horror and destruction to come.
In Brooklyn, a housewife reads the news reports and is so distraught that she becomes physically paralyzed.Â She is traumatized by the photos of old men being forced to scrub German sidewalks with toothbrushes.Â The indignities and humiliations she reads about reflect, on a much larger scale, the small humiliations she has absorbed from her husband through the years of their flawed relationship.
“She has given away pieces of her life and identity to a marriage that doesn’t work,” de Santos explains.Â “The characters have everything that money can buy, but in the end they have nothing.”
The wife, Sylvia, “can’t take care of herself,” de Santos continues.Â “She makes choices; she chooses to stay in the marriage.Â But she’s lost, unable to express herself.Â And her husband, Phillip, also has problems: he can’t cope with who he is.”
The only Jew working at a traditional Wall Street bank, Phillip is obsessed by his desire to assimilate.Â “He has a love/hate relationship with himself,” de Santos says.Â What Miller is writing about, she believes, is the necessity of “knowing who you are in the world you’re in.Â It’s about identity.Â As the doctor in the play says, “˜It’s hard to be who you are.Â It’s hard to be anything.’”
In his anxiety to “pass,” Phillip, like his coworkers, is a Republican.Â “So where in the Torah does it say a Jew has to be a Democrat?” he asks defensively.
Even though Miller’s characters are specific to a particular time and place, we can relate to them, de Santos notes.Â “They are people who want to be heard—to be seen—and that is still relevant today.
“A good play gives us the opportunity to look at ourselves.Â It’s like looking in the mirror in a different way.”Â She adds, “When a friend dies, you see your life in a different way.Â The loss of something is important to us.Â But many of Miller’s people live in emotional poverty.
“In the end, though, Miller’s plays are always about personal responsibility.Â And,” she adds, Broken Glass “ultimately is about forgiveness.”
The daughter of an emotionally distant, alcoholic father, de Santos says she spent 17 years with an alcoholic husband before leaving him to prevent their 10-year old daughter from repeating the cycle.
“My father was a salesman, but unlike Willy Loman, he was extremely successful,” she says.Â “He came to America from Spain in 1910, when he was 15 years old, and he spoke eight languages.
“I was from his third family.Â He had two sons with his first wife. [They]…had children of their own before I was born.Â He then had two children, eight years apart, with a woman he never married.Â Then he married my mother, who was 20 years younger than he.
“He was always “˜going to start something’ in business, and he was a steel exporter from the “˜30s to the “˜50s.Â He became very wealthy; at one point he owned a whole street in Northport, Long Island.”Â He died in Spain, she notes, having gone there to look into setting up yet another business venture.
Currently, de Santos’ family life revolves around her daughter, Megan Wright, whom she calls “my favorite person on the planet.”Â Megan, she says, “was just a gift from the moment she was born.Â She’s kind, funny, smart—she “˜gets’ people right away—and she does not suffer fools gladly.”
Megan is a playwright and a member ofÂ Rogue Machine Theatre.Â She also manages a store at UCLA.Â “All my therapy paid off for her,” de Santos says proudly.
De Santos came to the theater early in life.Â She played a tomato in a kindergarten play and was the lead in her 6th grade Christmas play, Christmas on Cloud 25.Â “I felt in alignment with theater,” she says, “because it was all about storytelling.”
She holds that Lizzie, the heroine of The Rainmaker, was her favorite role because Lizzie exemplified “the recurring theme of identity: coming to know who you are and the challenge to stay in integrity.”
Changing her focus, de Santos then turned to casting.Â She was responsible for finding the boys for the film Dead Poets Society, for surrounding Harrison Ford with actors in Witness and for working with such television productions as Doogie Howser, M.D. and on ABC Daytime.
And finally, she came to directing.Â “Directing is just making up for your casting mistakes,” she says with a smile.Â Her technique, she explains, “is to provide a safe place for actors to explore.Â The trick,” she adds, “is reeling it back in.”Â Since turning to that aspect of theater she has directed at the Pasadena Playhouse, the Pacific Resident Theatre, the Odyssey, the Ark Theatre, Deaf West Theatre, the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Pittsburgh Public Theatre, International City Theatre,Â and others. She is also an associate artistic director ofÂ Rogue Machine.
Perhaps her most challenging and creative directorial challenge was staging Romeo and Juliet with the Deaf West Theatre Company.Â She called it Romeo and Juliet: Circus Verona and set it in Europe in 1928.Â All the players had “servants” who followed them around and “signed” for them, but they had to learn individually to walk a tightrope, juggle, work as trapeze artists, and do all the other traditional circus jobs.Â It was a challenge for everyone—and a huge success.
Her current production, Broken Glass, is a change of pace and mood, but she is excited about her cast.Â “Susan Angelo [the Theatricum Botanicum veteran], who plays Sylvia, is everything everyone ever said about her,” de Santos says.Â Â “She’s the real thing.”Â She is also enthusiastic about Michael Bofshever, who plays Philip, Steve Berleigh, who plays the doctor, and Peggy Dunn, who plays the doctor’s “shiksa wife.”
With this one, she says, she didn’t make any casting mistakes.
All production photography by Hope Oklahoma
Broken Glass, presented by West Coast Jewish Theatre, opens Feb. 25; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through April 17.Â Tickets $30-$20. Pico Playhouse, 10508 Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, 323-860.6620 or firstname.lastname@example.org.