More than 60 years after A View from the Bridge was published, audiences still can't get enough of Arthur Miller.
The Alley Theatre’s memorable production of Miller’s 1955 angst-ridden play, which will be staged through May 21, reminds viewers why many of his plays don’t have an expiration date. With a higher quotient of Sophocles than Shakespeare, this American tragedy brings to the forefront the mystery of motives and the power of desires—even those that we don’t fully understand or are socially taboo. The Alley's production is intricate and intense, and like their previous superlative productions of Death of a Salesman and All My Sons, Bridge will stay with you long after the curtain closes.
The play opens with the narrative perspective of Alfieri (Jeffrey Bean), a lawyer who looks figuratively and literally “from the bridge” of privilege and down on the longshoreman community of Red Hook, "the gullet of New York.”
At first, this frame was like the narrator who tells the sad tale of Bartleby the Scrivener in Herman Melville’s brilliant 1853 short story, or Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby. Indeed, Alfieri is both “within and without” the drama, narrating as well as interacting with some of the illegal immigrants living in the protagonist’s home. Like the useless chorus in Euripides' Medea, Alfieri can tell you what he knows, but has no searing insights into what makes people tick. He is the collective, dumb consciousness of those who look from a distance into the dramas of the lower classes, but has no functional wisdom.
Alfieri's main job is telling Eddie (intensely and brilliantly played by Mark Zeisler) that he has no legal recourse for anything, besides ratting out his wife’s cousins to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement for living in the country illegally. Bean performs Alfieri well: the world-weary professional who can do his job but doesn’t really help anyone. But his lack of acumen is significant, like all the misunderstandings in the play. Alfieri, like the audience, may be “inclined to notice the ruins in things,” but that is not because he is brilliant, but rather because there are so many ruins to see. Disasters are the norm, precipitated by a mix of idealism and greed and wanting more than what you are supposed to want. C’est la vie.
The sweeping minimalist wooden set captures the dark, stark and brooding atmosphere of an economically challenged working-class community. The scenes are specific and localized, but the problems are universal. The small living and dining room and Eddie’s oversized chair claustrophobically houses this frustrated and domineering husband with his dissatisfied and distressed wife, Beatrice (Josie De Guzman), his teenage niece, Catherine (Cara Ronzetti), and two illegal immigrant cousins, Marco and Rodolpho (Frank de Julio and Jay Sullivan), make for cramped quarters that intensify the conflicts and sexual tensions that exist among the characters.
Ronzetti, as Catherine, who squeals with excessive glee when she gets a job and endures lectures from everyone concerning every category of behavior imaginable, is brilliant as she nails the New York accent of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, mingling girlish mannerisms with glimmers of sex appeal in her efforts to unsuccessfully please all the men in her life all the time. She can’t win. If she is young and girlish, she retains her household status as the favorite niece; yet, if she shows the maturity that is expected of her, then she loses the only parental attention that she has known. Her love for the immigrant Rudolpho (winningly and creatively played by Sullivan) is complicated by rumors swirling around about his sexuality as well as his self-serving legal motives for marrying her. Her pain and desperate attempts to please what is left of her family—as well as her new love—are fascinating to watch, even when you know it won't turn out well.
De Guzman continues her excellent performance of brittle Beatrice, who feels neglected by her husband and pained by his obvious attraction to his niece, Catherine. Her chameleon-like shifts from irritation to devotion to jealousy to anger are spot-on, as it makes perfect sense for her to try anything and everything to combat the threat to her marriage—an incestuous attraction that is both repulsive and incomprehensible to her. A multilayered performance, De Guzman proves that tragic angst is at the core of this domestic drama, no matter the decade or locale.
Part of the brilliance of Miller’s plays is the realization that politics are always personal, and that can change on a dime, including the dime it takes to make the call to the immigration authorities (Chris Hutchinson and Todd Waite) to round up the immigrants staying at the house. Eddie is rattled and, ultimately, powerless. He says, “I want my respect,” but, as Miller frequently reminds us, this is a world in which you cannot always get what you want, no matter how hard you try.
Gregory Boyd, artistic director of the Alley and director of A View from the Bridge, says it perfectly: “Miller’s plays have often embraced characters caught up in an uncontrollable passion that can lead to personal catastrophe and the destruction of a family. But he always offers another undercurrent in the theatrical telling of the tale—one that speaks to all of us in the wider world. It is how we, in our time and place, watch this primal story work itself out that tells us as much about the world we live in as it does Red Hook…or Sicily.”
The sad jazz music of the '40s and '50s set up the era, but the frustrations, distrust and disappointments of the characters are timeless and cosmic. One’s reaction to the immigration scenarios in the play are a litmus test for our political beliefs, and that is the strength of Miller’s play: One can be for against the law, but no matter what, you see the limits of what the law can do, whether it be regulating one’s desire to provide for one’s family, or more carnal desires that defy the conventions of the day.
Miller shows us that our definitions of identity and morality are constantly recalibrating with the influence of emotions, desires, and, yes, the law. Our regard for these things is as individual as our thumbprints, and our efforts to control the emotions of others and ourselves is as uncertain as taking a boat from Sicily and starting anew in a country that may or may not want you. Many American plays are about status, both socioeconomic and psychological, and the journey that the characters take to change it. But this journey is unpredictable and as surprising as any play in American theater. It’s a heavy trip that you don’t want to miss.
Through May 21. From $26. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. alleytheatre.org