Not as cosmic as a tragedy, more ominous and socially observant than a typical melodrama, Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge” is hard to categorize. It’s its own thing—call it a classic American Millerdrama. “Bridge” is one of the midcentury master’s trademark works that dig deep and hit hard, aiming at that soft spot between the enticements of the American Dream and the creeping loneliness and anxiety of a competitive, hyper-individualistic culture.
It’s the sort of play that’s right in the wheelhouse of Shattered Globe Theatre, which staged a much-lauded revival of “Bridge” thirty years ago. Director Lou Contey—who also helmed that 1993 production—and his perfectly cast roster of actors have outdone themselves, crafting a show that manages the difficult trick of pulling us into the action and then pushing us outwards into a cooler, more detached perspective.
First staged as a one-acter in 1955, then expanded into its present two-act form a year later, “Bridge” charts the decline and fall of Eddie Carbone, a first-generation Italian American who works as a longshoreman on the hardscrabble, mob-controlled Brooklyn waterfront. He lives in the neighborhood of Red Hook, described by Alfieri—the local lawyer who also serves as narrator and authorial alter ego—as “the slum that faces the bay, the gullet of New York.”
Eddie is “as good a man as he had to be,” says Alfieri. A family man who just gets by, Eddie is guided by a life philosophy that comes down to, “Most people ain’t people… The less you trust the less you’ll be sorry.” Like Willy Loman, Eddie craves the good opinion of those around him—including his neighbors and coworkers, as well as his wife, Beatrice, and his orphaned seventeen-year-old niece, Catherine, who was taken in by the couple as a child—but does not always extend that esteem to others. Prickly and small-minded, Eddie is a flawed Everyman, too lacking in self-knowledge to serve as a conventional tragic hero. It’s his failings that create sympathy, as we see how the self-protective attitudes and survival skills he has absorbed over his hard life serve him badly during his moment of crisis.
Eddie’s real problem—the one that can never be acknowledged, least of all to himself—is that he is in love to the point of obsession with his niece, who as the play opens has the manner of a child but the body of a blossoming young woman. Eddie has done everything he can to prevent Catherine from growing up, which the docile, affectionate girl has so far accepted. But the uneasy peace of the Carbone household crumbles as Catherine gets a job offer and Bea starts complaining openly about his neglect of her, asking “When am I going to be a wife again?”
These tensions come to a head when two of Beatrice’s cousins from the old country sneak off a ship and hide out with the couple, seeking to escape the crushing poverty of postwar Sicily. Married older sibling Marco is hardworking, focused, laconic; his single brother Rodolpho is playful, creative, handsome and blond. The moment Catherine lays eyes on him her childhood is over. So is Eddie’s happiness, as the green-eyed monster settles in for the long haul.
Eddie “never expected to have a destiny,” comments Alfieri, in his part-time role as Greek chorus. That destiny is not a happy one, as Eddie seeks to reconcile his own illicit desires and twisted relationship with his niece with the code of his community, in which family loyalty is all, and ratting out paperless immigrants means social death.
Scott Aiello–who returns to Chicago after a fifteen-year sojourn in New York City–is superb as Eddie, the tormented little man whose façade of toughness crumbles into delusion and misplaced rage in front of our eyes. Eileen Niccolai, who played Beatrice in the 1993 production, skillfully reprises her role as a strong, loving and loyal wife who is capable of confronting her flailing husband but not of saving him from himself. Mike Cherry and Harrison Weger are utterly convincing as Marco and Rodolpho, respectively, thanks in part to the accent work of dialect coach Sammi Grant. And longtime Chicago actor John Judd brings a melancholic gravitas to the part of Alfieri, the poor man’s lawyer who bears helpless witness to Eddie’s downfall. But the real revelation here is Isabelle Muthiah as Catherine, who exudes sweetness and warmth in the first act, then flashes an unexpected steeliness as she realizes that it is up to her to escape an unhealthy, entrapping domestic situation.
Director Contey blends together these sharply distinctive voices and characterizations into an impressive contrapuntal unity, with all of the actors keenly attuned to each other’s energy. We see this clearly at the end of Act One, in a scene that begins calmly and builds gradually toward a menacingly dissonant climax, as the major characters subtly disclose their divergent personal agendas and interpersonal feelings.
Scenic designer Shayna Patel’s stark, open and imaginative set—the nearby Brooklyn Bridge is represented by a thick hawser suspended from the ceiling—underscores the play’s dramaturgical basis in Greek tragedy. And the placement of the audience to either side of the narrow, platform-like stage brings us right into the action. The layout reminds us that this is a crowded neighborhood without privacy or boundaries, where loss of face is an unbearable fate.
So many themes here: from the cruelties of immigration policy (then and now) to the insanity of the Madonna-whore complex to the eternal conflict between written law and more personal and primitive forms of justice. But what most resonates now—at least in this production, at least for me—is the theme of patriarchy, and how it blights and hollows out family life. Eddie wants total control over his household but lacks moral authority. His literal and figurative impotence, rooted in bad conscience and bad faith, takes the form of macho posturing, which alienates those who love him and is seen through by all.
In his increasingly desperate pursuit of a respect he no longer deserves, Eddie resorts to bullying bluster and eventually violence, taking down everyone around him in his own collapse. Today, this brand of rigid, resentful, self-pitying nihilism wears a MAGA cap. Its prototype is Eddie Carbone, an angry, baffled man who cannot come to terms with his own complexity and vulnerability. In this beautifully realized, painfully relevant production of “A View from the Bridge,” we come to understand that Eddie’s private quasi-tragedy remains a looming problem for us all.
Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont, (773)975-8150. sgtheatre.org. $15-$52. Through October 21.