It would be difficult to watch Arthur Miller’s 1955 play “A View from the Bridge” without thinking about the debate now raging over illegal immigration.
But just in case you haven’t been paying attention, Robert Waterhouse’s production of Miller’s dark American fable is here to shine a glaring flashlight on the connections between the suspicion-addled America of the 1950s and today’s renewed spirit of paranoia.
Waterhouse’s affecting if overwrought take on the play, starring Renee Landrigan and John Fredo in a pair of riveting performances, opened March 3 in the Kavinoky Theatre.
Miller’s tale concentrates the failings of mid-century America into the flaws and misdeeds of an Italian American longshoreman named Eddie Carbone. It is built on the scaffolding of a Greek tragedy and features the commanding Peter Palmisano as an omniscient chorus presiding over the affair like a reluctant mourner.
“This is the slum that faces the bay on the seaward side of Brooklyn Bridge,” Palmisano’s character explains of the story’s setting in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “This is the gullet of New York, swallowing the tonnage of the world.”
To emphasize the setting, set designer David King has conjured a hulking collection of concrete pillars that suggest a seaside loading dock. With few other props or set pieces, the action unfolds against this rough-hewn backdrop. The effect is a production that plays out at a slight remove from the emotional turmoil of its characters.
Against this grimy backdrop, the cast does a marvelous job creating a three-dimensional portrait of Miller’s quintessentially American family. At its head is Eddie (Fredo), a longshoreman whose wife Beatrice (Debbie Pappas) suffers his all-consuming obsession with young Catherine (Landrigan), their adopted daughter.
When two of Beatrice’s cousins Marco and Rodolpho (Adam Yellen and Adriano Gatto) arrive from Italy to start new lives as undocumented American immigrants, the audience fully understands how it will play out. (Hint: not well.)
As Catherine and Rodolpho hit it off, Eddie’s temperature begins to rise. In Fredo’s dynamic performance, we watch with mounting dread as Eddie’s affected good nature falls away like battered armor. He grows testier and angrier, clearly harboring an internal conflict that he is not equipped to control.
At the same time, Landrigan’s Catherine is engaged in her own tortured internal battle, between her affection for Eddie and her passion for Rodolpho. These two struggles of the psyche come to a head during an argument between the two in the first act over Rodolpho’s true intentions, in which Fredo and Landrigan are electric.
As Beatrice, Pappas has a difficult job. She somewhat overplays her character’s deep suspicion of Eddie at the start by sustaining her withering glances at him for inordinately long periods of time. But she shines in a scene with Landrigan during which Beatrice lays out Eddie’s true intentions and implores her adopted daughter to hit the road.
While Waterhouse has kept the interactions credible and the action and the action moving at a fast clip, his decision to sub out 1950s-era immigration officers for militarized agents of the modern Immigrations and Custom Enforcement officers is a step overboard. Without radically updating the play – say, making the Italian family Syrian or changing the setting from now-gentrified Brooklyn to a Rust Belt city – the insertion of laser-sighted rifles and barking agents only serves to take us out of the action.
As we have seen in so many recent productions, from “Stop Kiss” at the Subversive Theatre Collective to “The Collection” at Torn Space, great playwrights understand and anticipate the universal issues of our time.
With material as clear and potent as Miller’s and a cast as fine as this one, audiences hardly need the helping hand.
"A View from the Bridge"
3 stars (out of four)
Drama by Arthur Miller, runs through March 26 in the Kavinoky Theatre (320 Porter Ave.)
Tickets are $38 to $42. Call 829-7668 or visit kavinokytheatre.com.