Photo by Richard Green
By Philip Pearce
THE WESTERN STAGE last weekend launched its 2016 season with a stark and beautiful production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.
It’s a story Miller heard from a longshoreman and wrote originally as a long one-act which he describes as “hard, telegraphic, unadorned drama.” Probably for that reason, it failed to attract big audiences when it opened on Broadway in 1955.
But two years later, Miller came up with an expanded two act version, which played with marked success in London and in a French translation in Paris. The story of its obsessed longshoreman hero Eddie Carbone was still at the heart of everything that happens. But there was now an enhanced picture of his pulsing Sicilian neighborhood on the seaward side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Western Stage production is my fourth experience of the play, always in its final extended form. I saw it once at Britain’s National Theatre, once at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. In both versions there was a lot of interesting atmospheric local color surrounding the central story and both productions worked well.
But, perhaps influenced by the recent revolutionary London Old Vic version directed by Ivo van Hove, TWS director Jeff McGrath and a strong cast strip away the peripheral atmospherics and return to Miller’s primal dream of “hard, telegraphic, unadorned drama.”
Entering the TWS Studio, you face a blank brick wall and a bare rectangle of playing space marked off by two parallel sloping walkways. A small upstage cluster of furniture is set up or removed by characters as scenes require. Well before houselights dim or a recorded voice asks you to turn off your cell phones and check the nearest exit, two men shuffle in and play an unlit, uneventful game of pitch penny. It’s banal and boring. On purpose. Most long-standing street-corner games are banal and boring. It reflects Miller’s insistence that the play emerged at a period in U.S. history when to “grip people by the age-old methods of suspense, to theatricalize life . . . seemed faintly absurd to me if not disgusting.”
Once the dramatic action does begin, it moves relentlessly and without the kind of naturalistic chitchat or detailed character building that usually ease an audience into a dramatic plot.
The story is simple and straightforward. Longshoreman Eddie Carbone is devoted to and fiercely protective of teenaged Catherine, the niece he and wife Beatrice have taken in and raised since the death of Eddie’s sister. When Marco and Rodolpho, two illegal immigrant cousins of Beatrice’s arrive to hide out from immigration authorities while bedding down at the Carbones, the younger of the pair, Rodolpho, seems too blond, too frisky, too fashionable and way too interested in Catherine to suit Eddie. Moment by moment, step by step, in the face of all possible argument or logic, Eddie insists that the boy “ain’t right.” He sings tenor, he is a good cook, he even knows how to resew one of Catherine’s dresses which needs alterations. Eddie’s incestuous obsession with the adolescent girl and homophobic hatred of the boy she falls in love with spiral into tragedy for her, for Rodolpho, for everyone in the family and spread ultimately even out into the neighborhood.
The cast work as a team with a selfless commitment to the material. As the obsessed Eddie, David Norum is unyielding, tormented and, ultimately, terrifying. He is pitted against a family and two intrusive visitors who, each in their own way, match his steely will. As his wife Beatrice, Cheryl Games is all maternal fire and force in her determination, like a long line of strong Miller heroines, to hold together the family at almost any cost. The young and gifted Mia Pak shows extraordinary maturity in the characterization of the budding, inexperienced but passionately love-stricken Catherine. Nate Smith’s Rodolpho starts as a carefree and provocative tease and develops into a single-track, unyielding Sicilian lover. If it’s he who challenges Eddie in feelings for Catherine that seem something more than those of a devoted uncle, his older brother Marco, played with brooding power by Gabriel Alvizo, offers a challenge to Eddie’s age and waning strength in a telling contest centered in the lifting of a wooden chair.
The key figure who guides our reflections on the play’s events and relationships is the neighborhood lawyer Alfieri, played with superb force and subtlety by Jeffrey T. Heyer. If the people of the story seem swept along by forces too harsh and immediate for thought or surrender, this wise and wary observer becomes the Greek chorus of this tragedy. He comments on the action, he relates the rush of events to its ethical roots, he suggests motives the characters themselves either don’t recognize or won’t acknowledge.
You should go. But be prepared. There are no weak or tentative people here, no provocative discussions or interesting negotiated decisions. The central conflict and motivations are offered with unadorned, raw emotion. The characters don’t lay on the little quirks, endearing or dark, that actors like to use to woo our interest, sympathy or amusement. They are there for us, the spectators, to observe, evaluate and judge. That’s how it’s written and that’s how it’s presented.
It continues, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 until June 19th.