Our first professional play was one of Arthur Miller’s masterpieces, and Emsworth wonders if he’s the only person left in Rochester who remembers it. It was 1973, and a community theater group had arranged to put on Death of a Salesman in the Strasenburgh Planetarium.
This was theater-in-the-round; the stage was on the central platform out of which projection equipment ordinarily protruded. Designed for looking at stars up on the ceiling, our seats went back nearly all the way. We’d always assumed that a play would have scenery, but on this tiny, unconventional stage there was only a wooden chair. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people in the audience; we have a vague recollection of getting there through a blizzard.
We found Miller’s play powerfully moving. Was it well-acted? Frankly, we have no idea, although we surely thought so at the time. Still in our teens, we were thoroughly susceptible to the raw emotional power of the tragedy of Willy Loman. And with no prior experience with theater, we didn’t know good acting from bad.
Arthur Miller’s play The Price opened at Geva Theatre here in Rochester a week or so ago, and we went to see it after accumulating 37 years of life experience and theater-going adventures. The Price was written (and is set) in 1967, nearly two decades after Miller wrote his two best-known plays, Death of a Salesman (1949) and The Crucible (1953), and we were surprised to find that it’s more conventional in some respects than either of those plays. There are no flashbacks, fantasy scenes, or flirtations with the supernatural, and the entire play takes place in the course of a single morning.
The Price is the story of Victor and Walter Franz, two brothers who haven’t seen or spoken to one another in many years. Victor (Richard McWilliams), now 50 years old, is a low-paid policeman from Queens who sacrificed opportunities for higher education to support his father, who was crushed by the stock-market collapse of ’29; Victor has spent much of his unglamorous career doing airport security. He is finally eligible to retire, and his wife Esther (Carmen Roman) is anxious for their “life” to finally begin, but neither of them have any sense what that might mean. His estranged brother Walter (Tony DeBruno), who made no such sacrifices, has become a well-to-do doctor.
The play takes place in the attic floor of an old house in Queens where Victor’s and Walter’s father lived until his death some years earlier. Their father’s furniture and antiques are still there and must finally be removed; Victor has made an appointment with an elderly Yiddish antique dealer, Gregory Solomon (Kenneth Tigar), whose name he found in the yellow pages. He wants Solomon to appraise and possibly to buy the lot. Technically, the pieces belong to both brothers, but Walter has refused to take Victor’s calls inviting him to come for the appraisal. Victor and Esther hope the pieces will bring enough of a price to launch them comfortably into their new life.
Solomon turns out to be an eccentric, charming, and ultimately frustrating old man; only with the greatest difficulty can Victor, a poor haggler, bring him to place a dollar figure on the pieces. (Victor’s repeated question “But what’s the price?” tests the audience’s patience as well as old Solomon’s; we sense Miller’s nod to the then-trendy theater of the absurd.) Just as Solomon and Victor finally settle on a price, and just as the curtain is about to fall (figuratively speaking; the GeVa stage does not have a curtain) on the first act, Walter unexpectedly walks on.
The second half of the play belongs mostly to the two brothers, who hash out the grievances and resentments that have separated them for so many years. Secrets and truths long-repressed spill out at an alarming rate. Solomon retreats to a back room of the attic, emerging only occasionally to offer solomonic advice to the brothers.
The Price seemed to us to have less in it than Miller’s more famous plays. Perhaps the themes simply aren’t as great; The Price is much less complex than, say, Death of a Salesman, which has the same number of characters, and it doesn’t begin to approach the latter play’s emotional intensity. The playwright intended Victor’s great, apparently unnecessary sacrifice of his prospects as a metaphor for what he viewed as the unnecessary sacrifices America was making in Vietnam. But the Vietnam war has been over for nearly four decades, and we doubt if many audience members, including Emsworth, would have noticed the metaphor if they hadn’t read the essay in GeVa’s program.
Still, for an audience member like Emsworth who is far enough along in life to reflect, like Victor, Esther, and Walter, on his choices in life and the value of how he has spent his working life, The Price still has a good deal of resonance. And the acting in this play is very, very good — especially the veteran actor Kenneth Tigar, surely one of Miller’s most memorable characters. Tigar brings an almost unwordly transcendence to his portrayal of the old Yiddish antique dealer. This show has our solid recommendation.
We were interested to see that Tony DeBruno, who plays Walter, is a long-time member of the company of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which appears to be the only American classical repertory theater of comparable breadth and quality to the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Ontario, Canada, which Emsworth faithfully patronizes. Someday we’d like to pay it a visit.