A storm’s a-brewing, a big one. You can feel it in the supercharged air of the Eisenhower Theater, hear it in the ominous hum that suffuses the stage, see it in the guarded, anxious grimaces of the actors.
What form the ultimate deluge takes in director Ivo van Hove’s radically reimagined version of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge” at the Kennedy Center will remain in these pages a secret. But let me tell you, when the clouds of obsession and betrayal finally break, the disturbance is a humdinger.
All is orchestrated here, in the barren environment of Jan Versweyveld’s monolithic sandbox of a set, for maximum dramatic impact — and the catharsis does indeed have the kind of wallop you get from Greek tragedy. That was an effect Miller himself was after in this 1955 play set in the world of Brooklyn longshoremen. Van Hove, who won a Tony Award in June for the Broadway incarnation of this utterly enthralling production, aids the playwright’s cause ingeniously by stripping the piece of its naturalistic trappings.
The barefoot actors, confined to their unfurnished pen, are like zoo animals corralled in a pit. They’re trapped there with the most dangerous among them, Eddie Carbone, played superbly here by Frederick Weller as a man whose pitiable obtuseness with regard to his own passions makes him a lethal threat, most of all to himself.
“A View From the Bridge” lives in the shadow of Miller’s towering “Death of a Salesman” and conscience-pricking “The Crucible,” but, as van Hove reveals, it’s every bit as great. As an elucidation of the mysteries of human behavior, in fact, it may be his most riveting. Van Hove’s approach, with its suggestion of the audience as scientific examiners, peering down at troubled specimens, and with some of us even sitting up on the stage, certainly encourages the idea. In its timeless thematic richness — the illegal immigration status of two characters is pivotal to the proceedings — the play also exudes an enduring topicality.
Other themes were close to Miller’s heart and intellect in the 1950s; namely, the crisis in national morality brought on by McCarthyism, its insidious gift for stirring paranoia and turning friend against friend, family member against family member. Set in a working-class Italian neighborhood where blood loyalty is a veritable religion, “A View From the Bridge” bottles this atmosphere of intense suspicion in its portrayal of the emotional fire raging in the Carbone household. It’s ignited after two red-blooded male relatives from Italy (the virile Alex Esola and Dave Register) of Eddie’s wife, Beatrice (a sublime Andrus Nichols), arrive illegally to work on the docks and are given shelter in the Carbones’ home.
The rub is that Eddie is in love with his orphaned teenage niece, Catherine (Catherine Combs), who’s been raised in the house, and the primitive (but by no means dull) Eddie refuses to acknowledge what even is clear about this to long-suffering Beatrice. As in the Broadway version that started at London’s Young Vic Theatre, van Hove in this touring production ensures we see the unhealthy potential in the bond between niece and uncle: It’s detectable in the way 17-year-old Catherine leaps, childlike, into Eddie’s arms every time she comes into a room, and the disconcerting manner in which Eddie is so quick to caress her hair or cheek.
That neither of them grasps this truth is a linchpin for the production’s most shocking moment, one in which Eddie attempts to destroy Catherine’s budding relationship with Register’s Rodolpho via a stunning physical act. He’ll try other means to destroy it, with more tragic consequences. It’s handled dynamically by this cast, which proves to be every bit as good as the one that led this “View” to a second Tony, for best revival of a play.
The wiry Weller is a more compact Eddie than we normally see; a hulking Mark Strong played him on Broadway as a far more physically imposing man. Weller’s Eddie doesn’t have the kind of frame that would intimidate Rodolpho and Esola’s potent Marco. Weller instead looks to dominate with his eyes. If Strong was ursine, Weller is vulpine, and the physicality proves almost as effective. Nichols invests Beatrice with a sense of acute antennae and also, a weary steadiness: She won’t let Eddie off the hook, but she’s too tied to him to unhook herself, either.
The rest of the cast plays at this level, especially Thomas Jay Ryan, as the levelheaded lawyer, Alfieri, to whom a desperate Eddie turns and who narrates parts of the story for us; Ryan communicates the attorney’s anguish with a stoicism that conveys urgency. And Combs, embodying a character with both a girl’s and a woman’s needs, does a first-rate job keeping us guessing as to whether Catherine is aware of the feelings she provokes in Eddie.
Is it guilt? Is it love? In the dark recesses of ambiguity, this “View” gets captivatingly, devastatingly blurry.
A View From the Bridge by Arthur Miller. Directed by Ivo van Hove. Set and lighting, Jan Versweyveld; costumes, An D’Huys; sound, Tom Gibbons; with Howard W. Overshown, Danny Binstock. About 2 hours. Tickets, $45-$149. Through Dec. 3 at John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Visit kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.