The Price We Pay
By Geary Danihy
Someone much wiser than I once told me that it’s not a choice if there is nothing to lose, for a choice, by its very nature, must involve both gain and loss. That is the essence of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” which recently opened at Seven Angels up in Waterbury in a strong, solid production. The 1968 play by one of America’s most esteemed playwrights deals with the choices two brothers make – and by extension choices made by the wife of one of the brothers and the brothers’ father, now deceased. Miller, hailed as one of the dramatists who shifted drama’s (and tragedy’s) focus onto the ‘common’ man, here brings together two men haunted by the after-effects of the Depression and the paths they took to achieve or deny their dreams.
The play, directed with a steady, knowing hand by Semina De Laurentis, Seven Angels’ artistic director, opens slowly as Victor Franz (Charlie Kevin), a New York City policemen now facing retirement, returns to an attic room where he and his father once lived, where they, in his own words, were forced “to eat garbage” when times were tough. The room is filled with furniture, now antiquated, and the detritus of a life lived neither wisely nor too well, that Victor is eager to sell.
In a lengthy piece of exposition between the cop and his wife, Esther (Denise Walker), we learn, ever so slowly, that Victor, who dreamed of becoming a scientist, opted to stay with his father, a man monetarily and psychologically destroyed by the Great Crash of 1929, rather than pursuing a degree. Needing a job, Victor joined the cops and has been on the beat ever since. He balances his loss against the sure knowledge that he did what was right, what was expected of a son, unlike his brother, Walter (Jon Krupp), who apparently turned his back on the family to pursue his dream, eventually becoming a renowned surgeon. Choices were made, and they haunt and stain the lives of these two men.
Exposition (setting the scene; letting the audience know who the characters are and their relationships) is a necessary evil in theater. It’s seldom exciting and often engenders a certain amount of frustrated toe-tapping among the more anxious of theater-goers. In “The Price,” just when said toe-tapping might turn into a full-fledged tango, who should appear on the scene but Gregory Solomon (R. Bruce Connelly), a world-wise furniture appraiser, first-class deal maker, pocket philosopher, and just a bit of a nudnik. With Solomon’s appearance, the pace of the drama picks up (as do its comedic elements) and rushes towards a climactic confrontation between the two brothers that reveals the motives behind the choices made and the lies and misunderstandings that fed into those motives. It is fitting that what starts in silence ends in manufactured, forced laughter, for the drama deals with the human comedy, which is a razor-cut away from the human tragedy.
The bulwark, or bulwarks, of this production are Kevin’s Victor and Connelly’s Solomon. Kevin gives a nuanced, multi-layered performance, slowly creating a man who must confront the reality of the choices he has made. On stage from curtain to curtain, Kevin uses voice tonality and body language to create an all-too-real human being (watch his hands clench and unclench as his character attempts to deal with revelations that threaten to destroy the “story” he has told himself to justify his choices; note his fingers flutter as he strives to find words that will counter his brother’s “truth”). As Kevin’s character is forced to look into the mirror it is a minor epiphany for the audience members, for we all have had to face the reality of the major and minor fictions by which we have framed the past to put the best spin on it and, by extension, on ourselves.
And then there is Connelly, who has often graced the Seven Angels’ stage (I heard several audience members refer fondly to his turn as George Burns in “Say Goodnight, Gracie”). If Kevin uses body language to good effect, Connelly gives a master-class in how important movement is to the acting craft. He shirks, he shrugs, his fingers worry his lips as his character tries to work a deal -- and deal out some home-spun philosophy in the process. It’s a great effort by a multi-talented actor.
If Kevin and Connelly give us character depth from the moment they walk on the stage, Walker and Krupp seem, initially, to skate across the surface of their characters -- Walker aware that she is playing the part of the much put-upon, aggrieved wife; Krupp cognizant he is the ill-understood brother. However, each seems, over the course of the evening, to sink into her or his character, with Walker giving a heartfelt defense of Esther’s husband (a la Willy Loman’s wife in the penultimate scenes of “Death of a Salesman”), and Krupp rising to the occasion when his character is called upon to bring more than a touch of reality into his brother’s life...and memories.
Get through the first 15 or so minutes of “The Price” and you’re in for a gripping piece of theater, one that offers no easy answers and provides no ultimate truths (is there anything in life that does?) save forced laughter, but in the process it makes us think, for it speaks to who we all are, flawed creatures desperately clinging to self-definitions and self-justifications…and self-delusions.
The past is like an accident -- we all saw the accident happen, we just have different takes on why it happened, what were its consequences and, of course, who was responsible.
“The Price” runs through Dec. 1. For tickets or more information call 203-757-4676 or go to www.sevenangels.org