Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Oct. 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
We tend to think of Arthur Miller’s plays as naturalistic dramas steeped in the specifics of time and place, even as we give lip service to their universality. The Young Vic production of “A View From the Bridge,” a hit in London, New York, and elsewhere before arriving at the Goodman’s Albert Theatre, turns that notion on its ear.
Tony Award-winning Belgian director Ivo van Hove, known for his “maximal minimalism,” strips Miller’s 1955 story of longshoreman Eddie Carbone’s obsession with his teenage niece Catherine to its essentials, eliminating any sense of the location (Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood) or era (the 1950s) and staging it in a way that builds in intensity almost unbearably and heightens our sense of impending doom. The acting is stylized, with frequent pauses worthy of Harold Pinter. The result is the Greek tragedy “Bridge” has always been underneath.
Dispensing with the playwright’s detailed instructions, the set by van Hove’s frequent collaborator Jan Versweyveld is a black box, with some audience members seated on stage on either side of it. The box rises to reveal a sparse space, with only an occasional prop like a chair. It is reminiscent of a boxing ring. An d’Huys’ costumes are simple clothes you might see on the street today, and the actors are barefoot. Versweyveld’s lighting highlights the shifts in emotion, and Tom Gibbons’ sound design, mostly a combination of pulsing undercurrent and elegaic music, keeps us on edge waiting for the inevitable to happen.
Alfieri (Ezra Knight), the lawyer who narrates the tale, here functions like the Greek chorus and becomes increasingly involved trying to change Eddie’s disastrous course. He guides us in, starting with a tableau—one of many during nearly two intermission-less hours–of bare-chested Eddie (Ian Bedford) and his friend Louis (Ronald L. Conner) sponging off, presumably after a hard day on the docks.
The suppressed sensuality of this scene spills over into our perceptions of Eddie’s household. When he arrives home, the loving Catherine (an enchanting Catherine Combs), who has been raised by her aunt and uncle, leaps into his arms, twining her legs around his torso in a childishly innocent manner that seems less so now that she’s 17. The casual way Eddie strokes her leg also becomes unsettling, and Eddie’s wife, Beatrice (Andrus Nichols), whose dead sister was Catherine’s mother, is more aware there’s a problem than he is, especially since he hasn’t slept with her in three months and doesn’t want to talk about it.
The arrival of Beatrice’s cousins from Sicily as illegal immigrants (an uncannily timely issue now), who the Carbones are honor-bound to take in, is the catalyst for the tragedy. The older brother, Marco (Brandon Espinoza), a strong former fisherman with a wife and three children back in Italy, simply wants to earn enough money to feed his family, then return home. The younger, less serious Rodolpho (Daniel Abeles), who loves to sing and can both cook and sew, is taken with all things American and plans to stay in his new country.
Rodolpho also is taken with Catherine, and she with him. This enrages Eddie, who tries to keep her from seeing him, questions his masculinity by calling him “not right,” and even consults lawyer Alfieri to see if there’s anything he can legally do to end the relationship. Beatrice, on the other hand, is Catherine’s enabler. She recognizes the real source of Eddie’s jealousy and desire to keep Catherine a little girl, and she wants her husband back.
The situation escalates out of control until Eddie, driven beyond reason despite efforts to calm him, commits a terrible act of betrayal. This puts him on a collision course with Marco, culminating in his fate (here a literal blood bath)–caused by his own hubris.
While the entire cast is excellent, the evening belongs to Bedford’s Eddie. A big man with a strong voice, he is so passionate and relentless in his single-minded obsession that it’s scary, yet we can feel sorry for him even as we find his actions reprehensible.
But van Hove’s approach, compelling as it is, also has a drawback. The timelessness doesn’t entirely compensate for the loss of context, We get no idea of the neighborhood, much less the world, in which the Carbones live, yet Miller’s text remains to tease us. Just one example: Marco rails at Eddie for killing his children (by starving them), an accusation that had much more force in the 1950s when Sicily was reeling from post-World War II poverty.
That being said, there’s no question that Young Vic’s “A View From the Bridge” makes the tragedy palpable and moving.