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A View From the Bridge

Andrea Gollhardt, James Heffron, and Thomas LaChiusa in "A View From the Bridge."

Subversive’s innovative interpretation of Arthur Miller

Over the years, Arthur Miller’s 1956 play, A View from the Bridge, has inched its way higher and higher in the rankings of his great work. His earlier plays like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and The Crucible are better known. A View from the Bridge was not a success in its original outing. Nonetheless, every few years a revival will attract renewed attention to this model of modern tragedy.

The current Subversive Theatre production certainly serves this function. The script reveals itself to have marvelously complex roles for a fine ensemble of Buffalo actors.

A View from the Bridge tells the tragic story of Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman living in the Red Hook section of New York City near the Brooklyn Bridge with his wife, Beatrice, and their young adult niece, Catherine. As the play begins, it becomes clear that Eddie feels very protective toward Catherine. He doesn’t like her innocent friendliness to the men in the neighborhood or the womanly walk she’s developed. He objects to the idea of her taking a job outside the home.

At first we are inclined to attribute Eddie’s attitude to traditional Italian values, but when cousins arrive from Sicily to hide out in the Carbone home while they illegally look for work, it becomes obvious that his feelings toward his niece are more than avuncular. Obvious to everyone but Eddie, that is.

Under the direction of Kurt Schneiderman, the Subversive Theatre production boasts an impressive cast headed by Thomas LaChiusa as Eddie, Lisa Vitrano as Beatrice, and Andrea Gollhardt as Catherine. Each gives a multilayered performance. Actually, the strength of the production is a reshuffling of the balance between the characters. Historically a tour de force for Eddie, here the women leap from the page fully dimensioned with complicated loyalties and motivations. The result is thrilling.

Eddie’s incestuous desire for Catherine boils into irrational jealousy when she and Rodolpho, the younger of the two cousins, embark on a romance. Unable to admit that he harbors inappropriate feelings for his own niece, Eddie deflects, insisting that he objects to the young Italian who can sing, sew, and cook, because there is something unnatural about the boy.

As Rodolpho, James Heffron highlights the opacity of the role with a skillfully modulated performance. Indeed, LaChiusa and Heffron emphasize the fascinatingly uncomfortable similarities between their characters. Both seem to make decisions based coldly and entirely on self-interest; Rodolpho freely admits that his main goal is to become an American. Both seem to view Catherine in paternalistic terms; at one point, Rodolpho lovingly but condescendingly refers to the young woman as his “little girl.”

Heffron overcomes an unfortunate dye job to deliver a Rodolpho who is splendidly and unsettlingly ambiguous in his motivations. He is certainly sincere; but about what? At one moment he takes a punch in the face from Eddie. The thoughtful contemplation that crosses the actor’s face in this moment is a lesson in Method acting. For all his joking and singing, this Rodolpho holds as many secrets as Eddie.

The central issue of the play emerges when Eddie crosses an unforgivable line. Without giving the entire plot away to the uninitiated, let me just say that Eddie’s deed inspires Marco to observe that in Sicily he would be dead already. The dilemma is between the ethics of loyalty and the ethics of legality.

Jeffrey Coyle, best known for over-the-top comic roles, gives an entirely controlled and understated performance as Marco. Marco is a large and powerful man; Coyle imbues him with enigmatic intensity. At the end of the first act, when he challenges Eddie to lift a chair in a feat of physical prowess, he gives the moment overtones of both warning and foreshadowing. Coyle embraces the central ethical conflict of the play with great believability and emotion.

Fascinatingly, in this production, a script that always offers a bravura turn to the actor who plays Eddie instead reveals the complexity and power of Beatrice. Vitrano’s performance is stunning, and probably the most fully dimensioned interpretation of the role I have seen. Beatrice is sometimes dismissed as underwritten. LaChiusa and Vitrano expose a powerful dynamic between two partners, trapped in a marriage that is going tragically awry. Vitrano mines Miller’s text for every shade and nuance, and LaChiusa adroitly gives her all the latitude she needs. In this performance, Beatrice is easily the most knowing and practical of the characters in the play—a woman who must keep several competing and ultimately incompatible priorities in the balance. Vitrano captures every subtlety.

Similarly, Andrea Gollhardt makes a great deal of Catherine. This is a woman who is innocent, but not a fool. She craves the approval of her uncle, but must ultimately face the fact that there is something unwholesome in his attentions. Small gestures like lighting his cigar feel all the more creepy for the unfettered innocence she brings to the task. We also feel misgivings when we see her approach Rodolpho with identical simplicity. At the same time, the scenes between Catherine and Beatrice are played exquisitely and powerfully.

The greatest virtue of LaChiusa’s fine performance is, indeed, its generosity. In a role that could greedily grab all of the attention, the actor instead fuels the performances of those around him and creates a character who seems to get smaller and smaller with each turn of the plot. A towering king of his domain in the opening scene, by the time Eddie makes his final exit, LaChiusa has artfully diminished him to near irrelevance.

The literal “View from the Bridge” belongs to the narrative voice of Jack Agugliaro as the neighborhood lawyer who bridges the expanse between Italian-American ethics and the law. Miller uses the character as a kind of Greek chorus in his modern tragedy, viewing the action, commenting on it, but never having a true impact. Agugliaro gives a clear and finely modulated performance that dispenses exposition with equal doses of pathos and humor, while heightening the tragedy.

Schneiderman has guided his company to beautiful and well-modulated performances and an illuminating reexamination of the relationships between the characters. This is the strength of the production. His heavy directorial hand does overstate the play at times. The choice to flash lines from the Emma Lazarus poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty—“Give me your tired, your poor…”—onto the backdrop after Eddie’s ultimate betrayal may successfully underscore the mission of Subversive Theatre but misses the mark on the central theme of a play. The law is a given. Eddie’s ethical violation speaks to more fundamental truths. Similarly, the lack of ambiguity with which Marco pulls Eddie against his own knife in the play’s climactic confrontation contradicts the deft moral uncertainty of Miller’s script.

In addition to its other virtues, the production is beautifully designed with a versatile and economical set by Greg Natale, appropriately extreme lighting by Michael Lodick, an enriching sound design by Brian Zybala, and excellent costumes by Carolyn Walleshauser. The production continues through May 3.