A New York lawyer who worked with longshoremen in the 1950s once told a tragic, true story of illegal immigrants, betrayed loyalties, and the corrupted love between a good-as-he-had-to-be, hardworking Italian-American man and his niece. Fortunately for us, the lawyer was talking to renowned American dramatist Arthur Miller, who then turned the story into the play A View from the Bridge. Onstage in American Players Theatre’s Touchstone through October 22, it is a haunting tragedy of Greek proportions, deftly directed by Tim Ocel and featuring some of the best performances of the season at APT.
At the center of the story is the flawed hero Eddie Carbone, played by Jim DeVita. A complicated man, he has poured every ounce of his strength into decades of loading and unloading cargo on the docks in order to provide for his family. In particular he hopes that his orphaned niece Catherine (a buoyant, then brittle Melisa Pereyra) has a chance at a better life. But the love he feels for his would-be daughter has grown into something grotesque as she’s grown into a beautiful young woman. Eddie struggles with impulses to keep her safe that morph into a darker need to keep her for himself.
Tension in the apartment near the Brooklyn Bridge is already high when Eddie’s resilient but struggling wife Beatrice (an astonishing Colleen Madden) gets word that two young cousins from Italy have been smuggled into New York and will arrive at any moment. Escaping from a war-torn country that offers no jobs and no opportunity, Marco (a slick Casey Hoeksra) works ceaselessly to send money back home to his wife and children. In contrast, his younger brother Rodolpho (the boyish and charming Will Mobley) is eager to start a new life in America; going to the movies, buying records and new clothes, and singing while he works. He is also immediately smitten with Catherine. It is not long before the presence of these two “submarines” strains family loyalties and brings emotions to the boiling point.
But as audience members, we know that things are going to take a terrible and violent turn from the very beginning. The play is narrated by the family lawyer Alfieri (a sad and stoic Brian Mani) and as he illustrates in the first scene, the Italian workmen in the Carbones’ neighborhood of Red Hook believe it’s bad luck to meet a lawyer or a priest on the street. And maybe it is. With resigned fascination, Mani is present in every scene, either observing the doomed family or counseling Eddie, who becomes more and more distressed and destructive as Catherine’s love for Rodolpho grows. Unable to change the course of events, Alfieri looks on with us in awe.
DeVita’s transformation from a gentle, perhaps over-protective guardian to a desperate man who has compromised his honor and terrorized the ones he loves is stunning. Inch by inch, his amiable welcome of the cousins—even the unnaturally blonde Rodolpho—gradually gives way to aggravation, jealousy, and menacing taunts. His taut, carefully measured performance keeps audiences on the edge of their seats until the final explosion of rage that can only end in deadly violence.
As Carbone’s wife Beatrice, Colleen Madden also creates a character who is slowly unraveling. Aware of her husband’s growing lust for their charge, one can see the strain on her face as she tolerates Eddie’s slights, waiting for him to come back to her — and to his senses. As their conflicts intensify, she asks, she implores, she demands, and finally begs Eddie to return to their marriage, to no avail. The heartbreak that resonates through her whole body as her family is finally torn apart is a seismic event.
Tim Ocel’s creative blocking reinforces both the danger lurking outside the Carbone flat, and also the community’s disapproval of Eddie’s multiple betrayals. Immigration officers descend on the family from the back of the house. Friends from the docks look down on his actions from the top of the aisles. And caught in between, the audience is like a crowd of onlookers that has gathered at the scene of a tragic crime. Undoubtedly the plight of illegal immigrants demonstrated in the play makes it resonate even more keenly right now.
The massive set, designed by Takeshi Kata, takes over the small playing space in the Touchstone, transformed into the docks by stacks of boxes and crates that tower over the actors. With seagulls calling in the background, Eddie and his co-workers heave, shove, and carry boxes from place to place. This heavy lifting is echoed in the action of the play when DeVita’s Eddie literally pushes beyond his normal moral boundaries to find a phone booth to make a pivotal call, and when he clears the stage for a final bout with his family-turned-enemy.
Building on last season’s Miller classic Death of a Salesman, this production is American tragedy at its finest.