Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
I firmly believe that my great-great-great-grandchildren, when they come to write their college papers on 20th century theatre, will single out Arthur Miller as the greatest American playwright of this century. Unlike the long-winded O’Neill or Williams with his fixation on older southern women, Miller writes about absolutely average people. “The Price” which winds up the 1999 WTF season, is about two brothers who stand on either side of 50 – one a policeman and one a doctor, one married and one divorced, both of them fathers of young adult children. They are brought together by the need to dispose of their late parents’s posessions. The play centers on the choices they made in their lives and how they perceive them. This is the stuff of which real life is made.
I remember reading this play as a young woman and finding it very funny. Seeing it through my now middle-aged eyes, I was struck by the split between the first act and the second. The first act is very funny. The second act is all about “the price”. The price we pay for the decisions we make an the decisions that are made for us. It is this dichotomy, this split personality, that keeps “The Price” from being a truly great play, but since it was written by Arthur Miller it acheives a measure of greatness in spite of this flaw.
And the WTF has given “The Price” a handsome and beautifully cast production, well directed by James Naughton. There are only four characters in this play – the two brothers Victor (Jeffrey DeMunn) and Walter (Harris Yulin), Victor’s wife Esther (Lizbeth Mackay), and the used furniture dealer Gregory Solomon (Bob Dishy). In various duets, trios, and quartets they succeed in selling the furniture where they fail to reconnect as a family.
In the program Miller is quoted as follows: Despite my wishes I could not tamper with something the play and life seemed to be telling me: that we were doomed to perpetuate our illusions because the truth was too costly to face. Whether or not Miller made this statement with regard to “The Price” it certainly applies. Miller wrote this play in 1968 thinking not only of the personal illusions that entrap us, but the national illusions which led us in to and kept us trapped within the Vietnam War, which he saw as a tragic rerun of the Spanish Civil War.
In “The Price” Victor feels that he was robbed of the chance to finish his college degree in “science” because he had to care for his elderly father, who was ruined financially and mentally by the stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. He blames his older brother Walter, who was already practicing medicine, because he sent their father only $5 a week and refused Victor a loan to pay for his final college courses. Victor became a policeman and struggled by on a civil servants salary while Walter became a wealthy and successful doctor.
What Victor sees as his fate, Walter sees as Victor’s choices. Depsite revelations about their father’s true financial status after the crash, and Walter’s offers of employment and a legal way to make 25 times as much money off of the sale of their parent’s estate as Solomon has offered, Victor clings to his illusions, forcing them to be fact whether or not they really are. Walter is equally stubborn in clinging to his version of the truth, unable to see the sense of filial devotion which led Victor to feel he HAD to stand by their father at the expense of his own future with Esther.
DeMunn, Yulin and Mackay present Victor, Walter and Esther as absolutely average people – which is a much harder job of acting than representing a broadly drawn character. None of these characters is a great tragic hero like Miller’s Willy Loman or Eddie Carbone. No great tragedy has occured. Victor has had a long career on the police force, a successful marriage to Esther, and their 20-something son is out on his own and doing well. Walter has had great professional and financial success in his career, but at the cost of his marriage and his sanity – he has just gotten back on his feet after a nervous breakdown for which he was hospitalized. Which one paid the greater price for the choices he made??
But that is the stuff of the second act. The first act really belongs to Bob Dishy as the elderly furniture dealer. Solomon is a funny, funny character and Dishy is perfect in the role. I wish Miller could have figured how to better intertwine the story of this man who has spent his nearly 90 years putting a price on everything with the story of the two brothers who both feel the other got a better bargain in life. But there is nothing wrong with a play that makes you laugh and makes you cry. Dishy will definitely make you laugh.
Michael Brown has designed a spectacular set for this show. Massive Victorian furniture surrounds the action in piles which would easily reach to a second story window. Solomon offers $1,100 for the lot, a staggeringly low figure in modern terms. I would gladly pay that for the armoire alone. Rui Rita has done a fabulous job of lighting the scenery – from the light coming up through the slats in the floor to the changing sunlight shining through the lovely stained glass sky light. The New York home depicted by such a set must be along the lines of the great mansions on Fifth Avenue opposite Central Park, which would mean that Victor and Walter’s parents were very wealthy indeed before the crash.
The audience I attended with exploded in prolonged applause at the final curtain, but did not offer the cast a standing ovation. I understand that they received four after Wednesday’s performance, and I am glad because they deserved it. This is a good play by one the greatest living American playwright given a terrific production by a solid cast on a fabulous set. It is a fitting end to an interesting season for the WTF.
“The Price” runs through August 29 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999