On The Waterfront may be set in a world of menacing gangsters, ex prizefighters and salty union workers, but it's a priest and a would-be schoolteacher who have the real cojones.
The Budd Schulberg play (more famous for the 1954 film that came 40 years before it) has been given a suspenseful and effective treatment by Arlington's American Century Theater. Director Kathleen Akerly's production captures the desperation of the dock workers, the conflicting bonds of family ties and the way that an individual or two can turn the conscience of many, even if the ultimate result isn't always progress.
On The Waterfront focuses on the machinations of a dockworker union in Hoboken which is being run by the Mafia, under the thumb of Johnny Friendly (Bruce Alan Rauscher). After the beloved young Joey Doyle is offed, likely on account of his resolve to testify against the gangsters in charge, his sister Edie (Caitlin Shea) convinces a reluctant but idealistic priest (Matt Dewberry) to start looking into the corruption around him. When Edie crosses paths with Terry Malloy (Jack Powers), a former boxer and lower-rung hand to Friendly, sparks fly -- and Malloy starts to question where his loyalties lie.
In many ways, On The Waterfront has the feel of a conventional mob drama, but the play has substance to it. It's heartening to see Father Barry's rapid, indignant transformation from meek priest to fiery activist. Shulberg's work deftly balances idealism and cynicism to create a story that can be inspiring at points, but doesn't wrap things up so neatly that the results are unrealistic. Akerley's treatment plays up the drama, with ominous percussion underscoring scene changes and a smoky, elevated set, where characters sometimes crawl up from underneath, or sink below when killed. The play's heavy double-casting (eight of 11 actors tackle multiple roles), though, can cause some confusion, despite visual cues (if not costume changes) indicating a change in character.
Dewberry's take on Father Barry is emotional and affecting -- tears stream down his face, unrestrained, as he considers the consequences of what he's wrought with his activism. Christopher Herring is a slick, confident presence as Terry's brother Charlie. Rauscher has two very contrasting roles to play, including the menacing Friendly and Father Barry's disapproving boss, Father Vincent; he is engrossing in both roles. Powers gives a reserved and realistic performance as the divided Malloy, who got roped into Friendly's world during his prizefighter days by his brother Charlie. Yes, this is the Brando role who "coulda been a contender"; Powers keeps the quotable line from feeling like a cliché.
On The Waterfront runs through April 28 at Gunston Theatre Two. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available online.