Seeking the primal core in Arthur Miller’s ‘View from the Bridge’

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Catherine Combs (from left), Daniel Abeles, Ian Bedford, Brandon Espinoza and Andrus Nichols in Ivo van Hove’s production of the Arthur Miller classic, “A View from the Bridge.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Arthur Miller spoke often of how his exposure to the classic Greek tragedies influenced his writing. But the world of gods and royalty were not part of the American fabric, so he found a way to explore the tragedy in the lives of ordinary Americans undone by their fatal flaws. And those men are at the center of several of his finest plays, including “Death of a Salesman,” “The Price” and “A View from the Bridge.”

‘A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE’ Highly recommended When: Through Oct. 15 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $20 – $95 Info: Run time: 2 hours, with no intermission

Miller was a realist who tapped into the fractured heroic nature of his characters and the very specific time and place in which they lived. But out of the specific came the universal. So what happens when that process is reversed — when the trappings of time and place are largely stripped away, and the bones and muscles of the play are exposed as if in an anatomy lesson?

This is what Belgian director Ivo van Hove has done in his fascinating if sometimes frustrating production of Miller’s 1955 play — a production whose London and Broadway runs garnered raves, and which is now receiving its Chicago debut, with a fine but different cast, at the Goodman Theatre. The result is something of a contemporary ballet — van Hove has masterfully “choreographed” every crucial interaction here — in which body language is of the essence. And as beautiful and powerful as it all is, it did leave me wondering whether those who have never seen more literal interpretations of the play are being denied some crucial context, and whether van Hove’s work is best appreciated by those who can compare and contrast the two approaches.

Catherine Combs (from left), Ian Bedford and Andrus Nichols in “A View from the Bridge” at the Goodman Theatre. | LIZ LAUREN

Catherine Combs (from left), Ian Bedford and Andrus Nichols in “A View from the Bridge” at the Goodman Theatre. | LIZ LAUREN

This is the most primal version of “A View from the Bridge” imaginable. Set within a tight black box (with part of the audience, like boxing match spectators, seated in onstage bleachers), the play begins with a telling image as two muscled, shirtless longshoremen — Eddie Carbone (the big-boned, bald-headed Ian Bedford, whose volatility is superbly rationed) and his co-worker, Louis (a fine turn by Ronald L. Conner) — sponge their torsos after a sweaty day at work. The whole nature of masculinity is captured in that moment, and it will become the driving issue in the play.

Miller set his story in the 1950s, in a working-class Italian-American neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge. This is where Carbone lives with his wife, Beatrice (a perfectly controlled Andrus Nichols), and her orphaned niece, Catherine (the fleet and immediate Catherine Combs), a smart, pretty, over-protected 17-year-old whom he has helped raise, and who clearly has become the forbidden object of his erotic obsession. Catherine’s love for him is palpable and unrestrained — incapsulated by the way she leaps into his arms to greet him, wrapping her legs around his waist like a little monkey. She is too old for such things, and Beatrice sees exactly what is happening, yet is powerless to stop it.

And then the dynamics in the household change dramatically, as Beatrice’s two cousins arrive from impoverished, post-war Italy thanks to the machinations of Eddie and his dockside pals, and are welcomed to take up residence in the Carbones’ small apartment. The undocumented visitors (shorn of any accents here) are Marco (Brandon Espinoza, whose inner fire burns at an ideal heat), the older of the two brothers, desperate to earn money for the wife and children he has left back home, and who he hopes to rejoin at some point. Rodolpho (the graceful, winningly understated Daniel Abeles) is the high-spirited, boyish enthusiast of all things American who instantly captures Catherine’s heart. This, of course, causes a blood revolt in Eddie — whose own middle-aged manhood is in flux anyway — and he seizes on Rodolpho’s blonde hair, love of singing and comic antics as effeminate, convinced he is hellbent on marrying Catherine simply to get citizenship papers. The play’s tragic outcome is set in full motion.

Throughout, serving as the play’s anguished one-man chorus is Alfieri (a controlled but searing turn by Ezra Knight), a veteran lawyer who possesses a keen sense of the dynamics at work in the neighborhood, as well as  in Eddie, who questions him about preventing a marriage between Catherine and Rodolpho.

The set and lighting design by Jan Versweyveld is in perfect synchrony with van Hove’s vision, as is Tom Gibbon’s gorgeous use of sound (from Latin prayers to the subtlest underscoring). And then there is that great knotted huddle of love and hate, and vengeance and remorse that serves as a final knockout punch image. It is as real as it is emblematic.

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