Why We Go to the Theater: Miller’s ‘A View From the Bridge’

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Watching Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s clean-as-a-stripped-bone production of Arthur Miller’s 1955 play, “A View from the Bridge,” at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater was to experience a fulfillment of the idea of why we still go to the theater.

It was also a likely example of why the ancient Greeks went to the theater — or, in their case, the amphitheater.

The production, with its ritualized aspects, but also its stripped-down look and feel, was a perfect vehicle for the immediate and growingly intimate expression of feeling that propelled the play forward to its cathartic and inevitable conclusion.

Miller was a 20th-century giant in American theater. He wrote big plays with big, strong moral themes from “All My Sons” and “The Crucible” to “Death of a Salesman.”

His later plays were often seen more as melodramas than as the tragedies that Miller seemed to want them to be. They were naturalistic in their dialogue and presentation, which was the case for the often-staged “The Price.” It was also the case for “A View from the Bridge,” an intense family drama about an Italian-American Brooklyn longshoreman, whose obsessive love for his young niece and ward brings him to self-destruction. In the naturalistic setting of working-class Brooklyn in the 1950s, it didn’t quite raise to its aspiration of a play in the nature of the ancient Greek tragedies.

Van Hove is known for preferring to strip plays to their basics. Something similar is at work here. The play is performed, without intermission, in a box that lifts to reveal one set, a door, the edges, places to sit, and costumes, props are acted out or spoken about.  The language remains the same. It is natural and naturalistic. By that process of not being surrounded by anything else, it becomes clearer and higher. It is as if the drama has been taken out of its context of specificity, of time and place, and has acquired a largeness it did not have before. The play acquires a bigness of emotion that envelopes it like an atmosphere, a constant recognition of the stakes involved.

In short, what Van Hove has done is to to use a kind of Greek formality and ritualized style and turned Miller’s play into — not a Greek tragedy — but an American one.

He throws you into the play, and the source of its gathering maelstrom, by opening with a scene of two dockworkers—Eddie Carbone and a friend—showering, then going home, and the very next scene, sets the whole play.  Carbone—played with a kind of affability and tensile strength—is greeted by his teenaged  niece Catherine,  who was orphaned since childhood and has been raised by Carbone. In a whirlwind of energy she runs up to him like a powerful fresh breath and jumps high into his arms, her legs wrapped around him.  

It feels innocent coming from her, but you can see how far Eddie has come as Catherine played with storm-like high-octane energy by the gifted Catherine Combs, has come.  His hands surround her like a circling plane, as she parks in his lap.  Her presence gives him a buzz, in an unwitting way and right away, you know, if you didn’t know before, that this is trouble of the most serious kind, for him, for his stoic wife Beatrice and for Catherine herself.

More trouble come in the form of the arrival of two brothers from Italy, here illegally so that they can work.  The older is Marco, who’s trying to make money to save his family in Italy from destitution and starvation, the other is Rodolpho, a charming, charismatic young boy who can sing and cook.  Eddie has promised to put them up—they’re relatives—but the combination is immediately combustible as Katharine and Rodolpho are smitten with each other.

Eddie notices—he’s already flustered because Katharine has gotten a job, but her interests in their guest rattles him, then obsesses him, he becomes fiercely jealous, the slips into the arena of beyond reason.  He tries to suggest that because Rodolpho has blond hair, is charming with everyone that “he’s not right. There’s something wrong with him”, that he’s effeminate, not a real man.  This has been brewing for a long time, of course, all that touching and jumping and the pointed question from his wife, asking “Why don’t you treat me like a wife anymore.”

In van Hove’s hands, this is not a play about sex but about obsession. It’s not about incest but about how a basically good man becomes undone — and how his world unspools with him.   That world is based in honor, in the noting of slights and offenses, where a wrong word, violence or betrayal is never forgotten. Such behavior is part of the characters’ genetic code.

Van Hove adds familiar tragic notes: The characters walk about barefoot, or are forever taking off their shoes, as if entering a house of worship, which to some extent the theater was in ancient Greece. There is also the presence of an anxious attorney named Alfieri, played with a nervous portentous manner, who acts as a one-man chorus and narrator, who sees what is happening but is helpless to stop it.  “After all,” he says, more than once, “nothing has happened yet.”

What happens is that the increasingly frantic, belligerent and jealous Eddie is coming to “that dark door from which there is no coming back.”  The more he tries to control the situation, in which Catherine intends to marry Rodolpho, the more out of control his action becomes. Eddie charges into a searing, dramatic confrontation, a knife-like, two-part act that makes everything unforgivable and dishonorable.

Frederick Weller, known in theater circles for his work in plays by Mamet and LaBute as well as frequently starring in television roles makes for a lean Eddie. He is big with insistence and talk. Verbally, he’s a bully, who’s caught in his own feelings, because they’re undermined by his own unawareness of the true nature of his feelings for his niece.  “You’re never gonna let her go,” says his wife, played with a dogged serenity by Alex Esola.

In this production, we come almost as witnesses. We see things, clearly, and right away, but are helpless to help. In this ritualized, sparse production, the dilemma and the tragedy on stage feel in this moment like life itself.  In that moment, the stage becomes the last place for which there is no app.

 

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