Passions run so high in “A View From the Bridge” it’s no wonder it was turned into an opera. Not that this should be a cue for directors of Arthur Miller’s play to invite actors to let rip with abandon. Indeed, this strongly cast production is most gripping when the lid is held down tight on its furiously simmering emotions. If the second act rather boils over, it’s a price worth paying for Ken Stott’s towering lead performance and a supporting cast thrillingly alive to the drama’s elemental power.
Miller deliberately couched his 1950s cautionary tale of denial in the frame of Greek tragedy. But instead of a chorus, he provided the sole figure of wise lawyer Alfieri (Allan Corduner) whose meditations bookend the drama.
Badly handled, this narrator role adds considerable weight to the argument that the play (and Miller’s writing over all) can be too portentous. However, in Lindsay Posner’s production, Corduner’s easeful Alfieri ushers in the proceedings with a faintly ironic tone. He even wins a complicit laugh — something traditionally in short supply throughout — thus allowing events to unfold without signaling doom too early.
Yet in the family scene that immediately follows, the restlessness in the struggling household between longshoreman Eddie Carbone (Stott), his 17-year-old adopted niece Catherine (Hayley Atwell) and wife Beatrice (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is horribly clear.
Like her uncle, Catherine leads an unexamined life. Invited to quit school and take a job, she doesn’t comprehend the depth of her uncle’s potential disapproval of her independence. And she’s shaken too when Beatrice warns of the inappropriateness of being so physically open around Eddie.
Just at the moment when she begins to take responsibility for herself, two illegal immigrant cousins from Sicily arrive. And when she takes a shine to the younger, handsome Rodolpho (Harry Lloyd), Eddie’s mounting fear — of loss, lust and, crucially, self-discovery — engulfs him and becomes toxic.
Like a Eugene O’Neill play but without the monolithic quality, Miller’s drama is powered by inexorability, and its relentless sense of dark catastrophe is perfectly captured by a design team working in impressive harmony.
Christopher Oram’s imposing, dingy set of the square tenement building has two huge exterior walls set at almost 45 degree angles to the audience. On either side, Peter Mumford’s steep, almost expressionist lightbeams cut through the darkness creating chilly streets and picking out isolated characters loitering and watching. Even when, to the accompaniment of Adam Cork’s looming but restrained score, the apartment wall flies out to reveal the worn-out home, the sense of location remains secure.
With the prevailing mood so potently expressed, the performances take off. Mastrantonio has the least showy role but she turns understatement to huge emotional advantage. Her allegiances are divided and tested but her composure only breaks under supreme duress.
Atwell has an ideal freshness and nicely back-pedals the girlishness. In the overheated climax, however, Posner allows her climatic shift into distressed rage to rise out of her control.
Stott’s riveting Eddie has a swarthy, sweaty, all-consuming single-mindedness and a terrifyingly low flashpoint that keeps the stakes high throughout. The entire performance feels unpremeditated. Tiny explosions of anger — and, most importantly, love for his niece — explode as if from nowhere, rendering Eddie genuinely scary.
Posner’s handling of Eddie does shift one aspect of the play. In this interpretation, the famous kiss Eddie gives Lloyd’s nicely convincing Rodolpho to “prove” the boy is “not right” actually pushes aside the idea that Eddie might be projecting fears about his own latent homosexuality. This Eddie is wholly consumed by quasi-incestuous feelings for Catherine, removing a layer from the play and partly explaining why the final scenes of betrayal appear overheated and slightly lack texture.
That shift aside, the production’s coherence is so strong that Alfieri’s final word “alarm” is a frighteningly good summary of a gripping evening.