Herb Mitchell’s Return to Stage
"View" Bridges Talent

By Steven Pappas 

ELLSWORTH — Sitting in a downtown restaurant, waiting for his lunch guests to arrive, Herb Mitchell sat stunned while reading Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge.”

Mitchell had pored over every word, every line of the powerful story of jealousy and betrayal.

  

If You Go

  
What: "A View from the Bridge" and "The House of Blue Leaves"
When: "Bridge," July 28-30 and August 4-6;
"House," August  11-13 and August 18-20.
All shows at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Ellsworth High School Auditorium
Tickets: $15-$12
Info: 374-5556

Herb Mitchell (left) as Eddie Carbone and Ralph Chapman as Alfieri in “View from the Bridge” by Arthur Miller.

Photo courtesy of New Surry Theater

He’d been through the play countless times over the last three months, preparing for the role of longshoreman Eddie Carbone. The depth of the story, Miller’s choice of words, and even its pauses, had overwhelmed Mitchell.

“Miller must’ve lived these things to be able to write them so well. … You have to look at the circumstances that brought Eddie to the point of being out of control,” Mitchell said, his face showing a sternness that comes only from being rapt in deep thought.

“This play frightens me. I know this guy [Eddie]. I’ve felt what he feels. I know what he’s thinking.

“I decided I needed to read it through,” he said. “These guys [playwrights such as Miller and Tennessee Williams] showed real courage to write down these ideas, and the way people interact and communicate with each other.”

In 1947, Miller was doing research on Pete Panto, a young longshoreman who was executed by the mob for attempting to revolt against union leadership. He was told about another longshoreman in the area who had ratted to the Immigration Bureau on his own relatives. The story had all the elements of a powerful drama.

Mitchell stars in the play, which is being produced by the New Surry Theatre, and opens next weekend at Ellsworth High School. It runs July 28-30 and Aug. 4-6. Also playing is “The House of Blue Leaves,” a comedy by John Guare that runs Aug. 11-13 and Aug. 18-20. (It will feature many of the cast members from “A View from the Bridge” in repertory fashion.) All shows are at 7:30 p.m. in the high school’s auditorium.

The play reunites old friends Mitchell and Bill Raiten, the New Surry Theatre’s founder and the plays’ director. The two men first worked together during “Fiddler on the Roof,” which catapulted Mitchell’s notable career.

In the 1970s, Mitchell portrayed Tevia. At the time, he was a stockbroker with a wife and four small

children. Acting served as an escape from his career.

“I knew I loved it,” he said. “I knew it was what I wanted to be doing.”

Mitchell’s performance in “Fiddler” got him noticed by, among others, a writer/producer of an Off Broadway show. When the man asked Mitchell if he might be interested in coming to New York to perform “Fiddler” in Brooklyn, Mitchell turned him down, his family and career (and a cast party) prominently on his mind.

“I’ll never forget the look on his face,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell continued acting in local theater, doing several other performances — a few of them with Raiten.

Then, he decided he would take his shot. He moved to California and began the hard search for regular acting work. It was a hard struggle. He met the cliché, hard-nosed agent who told him he was stupid at 43 to be starting his acting career over being a stockbroker. He met a well-known casting director who also put him down during an audition for “M*A*S*H” because he tried to cover up his Maine accent, which was much more pronounced at the time.

In both cases, instead of despairing and packing up, Mitchell persevered like many of his friends and family on the East Coast had done for generations.

Perhaps a younger man would have given up, but Mitchell, who was always proud of his Maine roots, stood up to the Hollywood establishment — and succeeded.

Over the last 25 years, Mitchell has appeared in hundreds of commercials, more than a dozen movies, and has had recurring roles on primetime television shows, including “The Practice.” His most notable role is as “Dean Witter” in that company’s long line of commercials, with the slogan, “We measure success one investor at a time.”

In recent years, his life took a decidedly different path. He overcame three forms of cancer, spending months in hospitals. From those hard years, Mitchell has come out with a new appreciation for people and “home.”

Now Mitchell is retired, living close to family. He has returned to Maine (living in Blue Hill), and is eager to give back to the region that taught him to work hard and be “true to one’s self,” he said.

To that end, he wanted to do repertory theater again.

“That [Hollywood] paid the bills,” he said. “This is where I belong.”

And Raiten couldn’t be more pleased.

“I’ve always wanted to do ‘Bridge,’” he said. Raiten has directed other Miller plays, including “The Crucible” last year.

“There is a truthfulness to it,” Raiten said. “It brings together ideas that work no matter what is happening in society. That’s what good writing can do.”

Raiten works with cast members to do what Mitchell was doing in the restaurant: studying the play’s nuances, the meaning behind its dialogue, finding the depth of the story.

“We look at each part. We must be true to the playwright to be true to the character,” Raiten said. “Every ‘er’ and ‘um’ is there for a reason. We ask ourselves why Miller chose that word, that phrase, that moment.”

And from the deeper study, Raiten gets powerful performances.

“The betrayal is so profound [in ‘Bridge],” Raiten said. What has happened on stage during rehearsals has been inspiring and moving, Raiten said. The seasoned actor is bringing out wonderful performances from other cast members, Raiten said. But the cast, the energy, is bring out another level of excellence for Mitchell. “These are amazing actors, doing amazing things on stage,” Raiten said.

And Mitchell said he has always appreciated Raiten’s “third eye” — the director’s vision for discovering what each character and scene is about.

“Theater makes people better people,” Mitchell said. “That’s where I feel at home.”

Tickets to either show are $15 for adults; $12 for seniors and students under 18. For information or reservations, call 374-5556.

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