If you asked most theatergoers which American playwright wrote the most visceral critique of homophobia in the 20th century, Arthur Miller’s name probably wouldn’t top the list.
We think of Miller as the voice of the people in the age of McCarthyism, a clear-eyed writer whose command of the English language allowed him to lay bare the hypocrisies of our political system in “The Crucible” and shine a harsh light through the hollow heart of the American dream in “Death of a Salesman.”
But in the shadow of the other more iconic works in Miller’s oeuvre is “A View from the Bridge,” a harrowing exploration of one man’s self-sacrifice on the altar of his own fear and ignorance. In a fine production directed by Kurt Schneiderman of the Subversive Theatre Collective in the Manny Fried Playhouse, this heartbreaking tale comes vibrating to life.
Its energy and appeal emanates largely from Thomas LaChiusa, who gives a chilling performance as Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman who is overly protective of his niece Catherine (Andrea Gollhardt) and almost cartoonishly distrustful of everyone else.
“Most people ain’t people,” Eddie says to his niece early in the production in a bit of grim foreshadowing. “The less you trust, the less you’ll be sorry.”
Into Eddie’s ever-growing circle of distrust enter Marco and Rodolpho (Jeffrey Coyle and James Heffron), two Italian brothers who are cousins to Eddie’s wife (Lisa Vitrano). Having entered the country illegally, they crash at Eddie’s place while they work on the docks. When Catherine meets the charming and somewhat eccentric young Rodolpho, the predictable happens. Their budding love affair first arouses Eddie’s suspicion and then stokes his unbridled rage.
That’s when the tone shifts from that of a hard-boiled slice-of-life drama to a story charged with the paranoia of the McCarthy era and perforated with heart-wrenching examples of its central character’s flaws. It’s not a mistake that those failings – a crippling fear of the other, a constructed idea of masculinity in which violence is considered virtuous – also are America’s failings.
LaChisua is extraordinary as Eddie, able to render sweetness and confusion, love and terror, in a single glance. It’s clear from the way he looks at and speaks to his niece that he merely is affecting an avuncular tone and that his affection for her runs far deeper than his words suggest. His utter disdain for Rodolpho reaches a fever pitch when Rodolfo and Catherine dance in the family’s living room while Eddie stares at them with withering disgust from behind his newspaper.
Soon the two of them get into a boxing match in which Eddie kisses Rodolpho on the mouth to prove to Catherine that he is gay. Like the most virulent homophobes today, his behavior only demonstrates the deep conflict roiling within himself.
Eddie’s actions later in the play, which many read as Miller’s critique of those who squealed to McCarthy and his fellow anticommunist witch hunters, serve as a dark statement about the American soul.
As Eddie’s wife, Beatrice, Vitrano gives a sensitive performance as a woman trying to hold on to the tattered shreds of her marriage. Though Heffron’s attempt at an Italian accent is distracting and his delivery is rough around the edges, there is something raw and alluring about his performance. The rest of the cast does its level best to work in the long shadow of LaChiusa and his character.
Schneiderman put this play on his season in partial penance for his production last year of “On the Waterfront” by Budd Schulberg, who named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee along with Elia Kazan. Schneiderman felt a bit guilty for producing a play by one of the era’s best known squealers and feels that Miller’s play is a direct shot at the likes of Schulberg and Kazan – whose ugly phobias come vividly to life in Eddie’s character.
Schneiderman’s fast-moving and thoroughly engaging production more than makes up for the sin.
THEATER review 3½ stars
What: “A View from the Bridge”
When: Through May 3
Where: Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave.
Tickets: $20 to $25 with $5 off for union members
Info: 408-0499 or www.subversivetheatre.org.