Arthur Miller's "The Price" at Syracuse Stage

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 02/01/10More articles
Kenneth Tigar as Gregory Solomon. Photo by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Syracuse Stage.

My mother was born in ’29, the year of the Wall Street stock market crash that sent the country over the cliff into the Great Depression. Growing up in my grandparents’ house – the necessity and incredible luck of that being another legacy of that era – I heard stories about that day, among them how my grandfather had a truck back up to the side door of the house, from which he filled the shelves in the cellar with food. He was just a generation from the Irish famines. My grandfather was a small-time, small-town entrepreneur. He owned a couple dairy farms that were mostly tax write-offs, ran the stock-yard next to the railroad (my favorite hangout until my grandmother decreed it was “no place for a little girl”), had some men driving truck and a squad of boys trapping beaver and muskrat. My grandfather held onto his business and even loaned some farmers money. Years after he died, my grandmother told me they’d argued because he never foreclosed on the notes when people couldn’t pay. “I guess it’s a good thing he was so easy,” she said. “I’m living on the last of those payments now.” When her house needed clearing out, my next youngest sister – who had moved to Maine at what then seemed an inopportune time – came back to help.

“So,” said my friend as the lights went down for Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at Syracuse Stage last Friday night, “what’s this play about? You know I can’t follow these things.”

“You’ll have to watch,” I said.

Set in 1967 in the cavernous attic of a Manhattan brownstone about to be torn down, this production of “The Price” - utterly riveting as directed by Tim Bond - ostensibly concerns the two Franz brothers, Victor, a police sergeant (Richard McWilliams), and Walter, a well-off surgeon (Tony DeBruno). They’ve not spoken since their father died sixteen years before, broken in spirit by the stock market crash and ending his days in the attic with a hotplate – the family’s finery reduced to mostly out-of-style furnishings, a dusty top hat, Victor’s mother’s chipped harp, a pile of old 78 records and Victor’s college fencing mask and foil. Victor has engaged an elderly appraiser, Gregory Solomon (Kenneth Tigar), with hopes he’ll buy the attic’s contents. Berated by his wife Esther (Carmen Roman) not to be hood-winked out a good price, Victor wants the stuff off his hands too. And Victor is torn about what he owes his brother from the sale. He’s half relieved, half resentful that Walter never called him back.

Walter does show up, exactly half-way through the play. His spot-lighted hand-shake with Solomon as Victor introduces them freezes the action before intermission and then opens the second act. Originally the two-and-a-half-hour play was staged without an intermission, but pivoting the action on this gesture, and all that gentlemen understand it to mean, is just as well.

In this way the first act lets us take Victor’s measure. You have a feeling as the play goes on that he always slid into the background of this more charismatic, entitled brother, who – even chastened now by profound personal failures and seeking reconciliation – navigates his way around financial matters with an ease Victor will never have. Before Walter finally appears, Victor tries to bargain with the wily, witty Solomon, and we hear painfully much of Esther’s disappointed prospects. They’re planning a movie date later, for example, and she wants him out of his cop’s uniform so people will think they “have money.” In one of the play’s most haunting lines, Esther says of their years of pinched circumstances and dreams, “We never ‘were’ – we were always ‘about to be.’”

Prophetically, this also describes the second act, in which Victor and Walter approach and pull away from one another, seemingly helpless of the waves of old resentments and guilts, just on the brink of reaching each other when some interruption sends them careening apart again.

The building of houses has long been a staple image for American progress. Think of the framed-in, unfinished wood construction standing for the not-yet-finished nation on screen, in recent Westerns like “There Will Be Blood,” the re-make of “3:10 to Yuma,” “Appaloosa,” “Deadwood.” In 1967, a year in the midst of equally wrenching change (and JFK’s resurrection of frontier vocabulary), Arthur Miller wrote instead of the impending demolition of an old family home and its children’s inability, despite real good intentions on each side, to get past the past. Miller believed the Vietnam War and the Great Depression to be the defining events of the 20th century for Americans, and in 1999 wrote that in this play he intended to evoke both. In this time – though if you clear out one house, you know that unleashes the best and the worst in any family – “The Price” speaks to us again.

My friend never fidgeted once. On the way out, she said, “That’s the best play I’ve ever seen.”

This review appears in the 2/4/2010 print issue of the Syracuse City Eagle. “The Price” runs through February 14 at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse 13210, 315.443.3275 or Syracuse.Stage.org. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Arthur Miller's The Price, Tim Bond, Syracuse Stage, Richard McWilliams, Tony DeBruno, Kenneth Tigar, Carmen Roman, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 2.8/5 (15 votes cast)

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