The 1950s Brooklyn waterfront setting of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge has long since disappeared. The container revolution, beginning in the 1970s, ended forever the traditional longshoreman’s role of manually loading and unloading cargo vessels, and the ships themselves now dock in New Jersey. The more recent gentrification of Brooklyn has made working-class neighborhoods in the area equally a thing of the past.
But the themes and questions of Miller’s great work, like those of any classic, transcend any specific time or locale. What is masculinity, what is it based on, and how is it expressed? How do we as a community and country address immigration? How does a culture, or a family, deal with change? Maryland Ensemble Theatre’s (MET) thoroughly traditional current production approaches the play in a clear, emotionally compelling way that honors the details of the play’s setting, the realities of its characters’ lives, and the continuing importance of its unanswered questions.
One way of trying to answer such questions is to do so rationally, adapting to changed circumstances through compromise, accommodation, and adherence to the law. Such is the path of Alfieri (Tad Janes), a lawyer, who sees his community as having, for the most part, “settled for half,” a point between the passions of old Sicily and the more pragmatic culture of America. Janes gives an often wry, detached air to the character, save when he is gripped by apprehension of dire events he foresees but knows he cannot forestall. Like other “reasonable man” characters in Miller’s plays (e.g., Charlie in Death of a Salesman), Alfieri can be thought to stand for the limits of rationality in matters where emotions rule.
The play’s central character, Eddie Carbone (Jack Evans), is at the opposite pole. He is all passion, all emotion, all reaction without forethought. He doesn’t – perhaps can’t – understand his own compulsions, and is threatened to the core by any challenge to them. Eddie is a cauldron of feelings and reactions – humor, bullying, generosity, protectiveness, unacknowledged erotic obsession, fear, pride, cowardice – that never make a coherent whole, that incoherence forming a significant part of the character’s tragedy. Evans has the range to play all the aspects of Eddie, with the ability to move quickly from one to the other and to vary the dynamics from piano to fortissimo.
There is a moment when Eddie, upon learning that his niece plans to marry, presses his hands to the sides of his face as though his head is about to burst. In some hands, the gesture could read as too melodramatic, but Evans makes it true for the character. Evans is particularly compelling toward the end of the play, as Eddie realizes how thoroughly he has isolated and destroyed himself, prior to his fatal confrontation with Marco.
That niece, Catherine (Karli Cole), a 17-year-old who has lived with the Carbones since her parents died, has long adored Eddie, who in turn has an erotic fixation on her that he denies but which is all too obvious to Eddie’s wife, Beatrice (Jeanine Evans). Beatrice is a long-suffering, loyal wife who, like Kate Keller in All My Sons and Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman, is no more able, through patience and devotion, to prevent her husband’s self-destruction than are Alfieri or Charlie through reason. Beatrice clearly wants to get Catherine out of the house, seeing Catherine as undermining her relationship with Eddie; among other things, he has not been sexually interested or capable with his wife in recent months.
Cole emphasizes the “child” in her child/woman character, in her initial, boundary-oblivious, effusive affection for Eddie; her pouting when things don’t go her way; her teen crush-style falling in love with Rodolpho; and her fury at Eddie’s betrayal. There is room for Catherine’s character arc to bend further toward greater maturity and assurance as the second act progresses. Evans’ Beatrice has her strongest moments when tries to instruct Catherine in her need to separate emotionally from Eddie in Act 1 and as she attempts to stand up to Eddie in the final scenes, strikingly telling Eddie that Catherine is someone he can never have.
The catalyst for the play’s tragedy is the arrival of Beatrice’s two illegal immigrant cousins, Marco (Clay Comer) and Rodolpho (Jeremy Myers), fresh off the boat from Italy. Marco is the picture of strong, silent masculinity, as bound up as Eddie in pride and honor, the obligation to provide for family, and the need to establish male dominance (neatly expressed in the chair-lifting competition at the end of Act 1). Rodolpho is far more lighthearted, inclined toward song, dancing, romance, snazzy clothing, jokes, and bright lights. Marco has come to the U.S. to work and send remittances to his impoverished family back in postwar Italy before returning home. Rodolpho wants to become a citizen and enjoy the good life in America. Both actors capture the physicality of their characters – self-contained and brooding, with an undercurrent of violence, for Marco, fluidly moving and rapidly gesturing for Rodolpho – and present a nice contrast as siblings who differ in almost every respect.
As Eddie realizes the growing attraction between Catherine and Rodolpho, he tries various means of stopping it: telling Catherine that Rodolpho is simply using her to get citizenship; telling her, and disastrously trying to show her, that he is homosexual; and finally by committing the mortal sin, in this immigrant community, that he knows will result in his ostracism. At the end, in dialogue reminiscent of the last scene of The Crucible, Eddie demands that Marco give him his name back, though unlike John Proctor, Eddie’s loss of his name is his own doing, not that of an unjust community.
The technical details of the production are first-rate. The semi-thrust stage is backed by white/gray wooden slats representing the walls of the Carbones’ apartment, onto which dockyard activity visuals and sounds are projected during scene changes. Set dressings and props are period-appropriate, down to the instructions on the pay phone attached to one of the pillars in the space. Director Gerard Stropnicky makes good use of the limited space, treating the narrow area between the set platforms and the first row of seats as the street in front of Eddie’s house; actors go around back of the set from the street to enter through a set door. Stropnicky also pays attention to audience sight lines by, for example, blocking the two Eddie/Alfieri office scenes on the diagonal. Stephanie Hyder’s costumes designs are generally subdued for the working class characters, with a dapper blue three-piece suit for Alfieri and a series of increasingly colorful outfits that serve Rodolpho well. The New York outer-borough accents are strong and consistent throughout the cast, with the two immigrants having equally successful Italian accents. Somewhat curiously, Alfieri, for having not moved to America until he was 25, shows no remnants of an Italian accent.
Miller’s script for A View from the Bridge is not as overtly political as that of The Crucible, but it was formed in a very political context. It grew out of a joint, never-filmed, screenwriting project between Miller and Elia Kazan with the working title of “The Hook,” focusing on mob corruption on the docks. Following the rupture of the Miller/Kazan friendship over Kazan’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller wrote this play, in which naming names is a tragic error, while Kazan directed On the Waterfront, in which informing was portrayed as heroic.
In today’s political climate, it is likely the play’s grappling with the matter of illegal immigration and the community’s reaction to it that has the greatest resonance. It would be fascinating, for example, to see an adaptation of the play concerning immigration on the American southwest border, in which the immigrants are Hispanic and in which the bridge in question is over the Rio Grande.
Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes, including one intermission.