(From left): William Hayes, Christopher Herring, Bruce Rauscher, Daniel Corey, Joe Cronin, Cyle Durkee and Jack Powers in a scene from "On the Waterfront."
It has been hailed as one of the greatest movies of all time, winning eight Academy Awards for an all-star cast that included Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden. But for playwright Budd Schulberg, himself an Oscar winner for Best Story and Screenplay, the 1954 film version of “On the Waterfront” was never quite the story he wanted told.
Having had subtle changes made to the script by director Elia Kazan, Schulberg took the unusual step of adapting his work to a stage play more than 40 years after the iconic film debuted. It is this often overlooked version of the union violence and corruption on the docks of New York that is presented by The American Century Theatre, now playing at Gunston Theatre II in Arlington.
Director Kathleen Akerley has assembled a brilliant ensemble cast to tell Schulberg's story of the kid who “coulda been a contender,” fighter Terry Malloy who reluctantly becomes a hero for facing down mob boss Johnny Friendly.
In the central role of Terry, immortalized by Marlon Brando in the film, is Jack Powers, a newcomer to American Century.
“I know I have this specter hovering above me,” Powers said following the opening night performance March 30. “I wasn't allowed to see the movie so that I can bring my own nuances to the role.”
In the menacing role of Johnny Friendly is the award-winning Bruce Alan Rauscher, one of the most talented and versatile actors in the region. Rauscher is riveting as the brute fury boss and provides a fierce performance while not letting his character turn into a caricature of evil.
Matt Dewberry joins Rauscher as a leading presence in the play as the gritty and brave Father Barry, who defies the system rather than be a pawn in the ruthless killings. Dewberry brings a heroic strength to a performance that builds to a brilliant crescendo as he risks his life in the fight for justice.
Caitlin Shea is excellent as the naÔve but feisty Edie Doyle, whose brother was murdered with the unwitting help of Terry. Shea and Powers share a palpable connection as Edie brings out a tenderness and consciousness in Terry's heart where none existed before.
In a production filled with notable performances, other standouts include Graham Pilato as the reporter who chronicles and eventually breaks open the corruption of the docks, Christopher Herring as Charlie “The Gent” Malloy, and Tyler Herman, who admirably and seamlessly tackles four roles, beginning with the murdered Joey Doyle.
“I love my cast,” said Akerley on opening night. “There are challenges in this space but the production has turned out extremely well.”
Rounding out the cast are Daniel Corey, Joe Cronin, Cyle Durkee, Christopher Holbert and William Haynes. With the exception of Powers, Dewberry and Shea, the entire cast flawlessly tackles multiple roles within the show, a testament to the immense talent of the ensemble.
Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden (scenic design) and Marianne Meadows (lighting design) combine to powerful effect to transform the intimate theater from grim waterfront dock to church sanctuary to tenement rooftop.
They say evil only triumphs when good men do nothing. When those same men stand up for what they believe in, they show evil for what it really is — cheap and malicious, and The American Century Theatre production of “On the Waterfront” finally provides the gritty and powerful drama Schulberg always hoped it would be.
“On the Waterfront” is playing now through April 28 at Gunston Theatre II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. For tickets or more information, call 703-998-4555 or visit www.americancentury.org.