Sure, he’s the great man of American theater, unless of course your tastes run more toward the bleak expanses of O’Neill or the purple majesties of Williams, and sure, there’s something inescapably monumental, not to mention polemical, about Arthur Miller’s plays—two of which, including the theatrical Everest that is Death of a Salesman, are getting solid productions at Arena Stage just now.
But let’s take a minute and remember something else, if only because the considerable strengths of the Arena repertory help illuminate it: Arthur Miller, that restless experimenter, that superb intellect, that leftist rabble-rouser, also wrote heartbreakingly about families, about relationships, about the ways we lift each other up and let each other down. The greatness of his greatest plays isn’t merely in their ambitious stagecraft—that odd sense of expressionism overlaid on the everyday—or in the rhythms of the language that he somehow makes sound at once epic and intimate. It’s also in the webs of feeling, true and false, joyous and pained, that connect his people so inextricably.
Think about it: How much easier it would be, in A View From the Bridge, if you could write off Eddie Carbone as twisted, or as a thug—as an Italian-American Woody Allen leering and lusting after the orphaned girl he’s raised so tenderly, a graceless heavy grasping for his own happiness and trampling on the yearnings of those nearest and dearest to him.
That’s what’s in play here, at the heart of this American-dreaming story about immigrants struggling to find a foothold and then to expand it, this ’50s-vintage allegory about name-naming and ratting-out. It works as a potboiler, and it works (though not as well as The Crucible, perhaps) as political allegory—but for all that, its center is a man whose protective instincts have curdled into something we recognize and recoil from, but who’s never so beastly that we can stop caring altogether about the damage he’s doing to himself.
Same for Salesman’s Willy Loman, whose mistakes you can smell before he makes them, whose tragic delusions live just this side of the absurd. (If they feel familiar, it’s because they’re our delusions, too, the white lies our country tells itself about opportunity and loyalty, so we invest just a little in Willy each time he starts spinning one of his hopeful tales—and each time his humiliation breaks our hearts.) How much easier it would be if you could simply write him off as a failure, root for stalwart Linda to stop standing by her man and for disenchanted Biff to stop needing the approval of the father he’s long since known to be a fake. Not a chance: Miller insists, in part through the intense pain of the characters his heroes are constantly failing, that there’s much to mourn in their miscalculations.
The directors of Arena’s rotating rep—Timothy Bond staged Salesman, Daniel Aukin View—clearly understand how crucial those family ties are, how much the tragedies of Willy Loman and Eddie Carbone are caught up in the concomitant tragedies of their wives and their children, and they’ve assembled a tight ensemble cast to illuminate them.
Rick Foucheux, taciturn in a bit part as one of View’s longshoremen, dreams Willy’s increasingly impossible dreams with a touching, needy fervor. Nancy Robinette, who walks on in View just in time to utter a horrified “No” as that play’s tragedy reaches its apex, allows her Linda Loman to cling just fiercely enough to hope that the same frantic monosyllable strikes at the heart when Salesman’s climax comes. She keeps Linda’s brave, knowing game face always on, while still allowing glimpses of the wary, weary calculation required to keep the peace in a household that’s coming to pieces, to bolster a breadwinner whose options keep narrowing by the hour.
Noble Shropshire, cross-cast more evenly, if in less titanic roles, plays voices of reason and cantankerous kindness: He’s Willy’s long-suffering neighbor Charlie and the lawyer who tries to talk sense to Eddie, and in both plays he’s humane enough that it aches when he goes unheeded.
Louis Cancelmi alternates between opposites: His Bernard is the kid who grows from irritatingly nebbishy hanger-on to gentle, sensible shoulder-to-lean-on as the Salesman story advances, while in View his stolid, hardworking Marco is the immigrant houseguest who bears all Eddie’s outrages—until the one he simply can’t stomach.
Naomi Jacobson, all loose laughter and perfect timing as the wholesale chippy with whom Willy carries on his road-warrior dalliance, turns grim and determined as Eddie’s increasingly alienated wife Beatrice, who’ll show a streak of Linda Loman herself in the end, refusing to abandon her man even when he’s made a good case that she should.
Delaney Williams proves a surprisingly good fit as View’s bullish, bigoted, fascinatingly vulnerable Eddie; Virginia Kull is an aptly callow presence as the niece who can’t quite bring herself to believe, until much too late, that his protective solicitousness is anything other than a paternal reflection of the gratitude she feels. David Agranov is the intriguingly bland young man whose attentions spark the jealousy that will scorch everyone before the evening’s through. The latter two make a sweetly giddy couple in the early going, then come nicely to earth as the plot’s complications ensnarl them.
As for the stagings, they’re attentive to detail and rarely showy, nicely paced and thoroughly affecting. With Salesman, Bond teases out all sorts of tiny, telling moments in a play whose gestures still feel satisfyingly epic. Watch, early on, as Robinette’s Linda helps Willy get dressed for bed, and see the silent notice she takes of something the script asks her to address out loud in a later scene; note, in the brief epilogue, the costuming grace note that opens up a whole new area of inquiry about Willy’s love-hate relationship with Charlie.
A View From the Bridge is less iconic a play, and possibly a less sturdy one; the audience might be excused a little restlessness in a play where even the narrator says he can see the trouble coming before intermission. But sit tight: If something seems plain in the first half, there’s a good chance Miller (or Aukin) will find a way to call it into question before the second act is far advanced, and pitch-
perfect performances from the ensemble—pretty much across the board—help immeasurably. With Aukin, they build the final scenes to an excruciating frenzy of anticipation, and when that cry of “No” comes, here as surely as it does in Salesman, you might just find yourself sitting aghast, knowing that the inevitable has come—and hoping, still, that you might somehow be wrong.