“I ask you to remember: with used furniture, you cannot be emotional!”
—Ray Reinhardt as Gregory Solomon
Over a jumble of old-fashioned furniture, stacked every which-way, as if stored in an attic, is a smoggy skylight. Into this crowded room, empty of people, comes a cop, who muses over the scene. He rights an upended chair on which he places his unbuckled belt and holster with his cap rather than sitting down, all the while glancing at his watch. After hefting an oar and unpacking a fencing mask and foil, he starts spinning sides on a victrola—old novelty records, one just of laughter, which he joins in.
These wordless moments introduce the Aurora Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s The Price on Richard Olmstead’s set, and its protagonist, Victor Franz (Charles Dean), a somewhat diffident man. When he is joined by his wife, Esther (Judith Marx) the dialogue begins and won’t let up; it only varies in intensity and tone until the last minutes of the play.
The situation seems of the simplest familial obligation, though in this case, one long overdue: the disposal of Vic’s family household items, years after the death of his father, who was ruined in the Depression and a widower soon after.
All the social complications of an Arthur Miller play arise out of the relentless dialogue, which starts out easy enough in conversational rhythms between man and wife, establishing that Vic left college and his pursuit of a scientific career to support his father (“a busted man like thousands of others”), while his brother Walter went to medical school.
Vic is now 50-ish, desultorily putting off retirement, and the selling of the old furniture, on and off trying to contact the now-successful and aloof Walter about his wishes—and share—in its disposal, now that the old house is to be torn down. Esther urges Vic to seek Walter’s help in finding a new career that he loves, maybe going back to school. The two brothers haven’t spoken in 16 years. Vic’s cynical about his brother’s potential spirit of helpfulness: “That’s why he’s got Cadillacs—people who love money don’t give it away.”
As they talk about old times and spoiled dreams—and the furniture —the dealer, Gregory Solomon comes in, flattering Esther shamelessly. Even after her departure, he remarks, “I like her. She’s suspicious ... a girl who believes everything, how can you trust her?”
Ray Reinhardt’s Solomon is very much a humorous version of his namesake: the judge who divvies up everything literally and in equal portions. Unleavened in a way himself, he’s the comic leavening of the drama. Ever diffident, Vic at first seems to rebuff the ancient appraiser, but while going over the goods—an old laprug for a lavish open car, an opera hat—he begins talking about his once-rich father.
The hybrid nature of Miller’s dramas is seldom discussed; mostly it is his often brilliant adaptation of dialogue and storytelling techniques from radio, though there are times when the unutterable and ineffable are mulled over with oratorical overkill. In this case, the counterpoint of the humorous Solomon offsets the almost turgid character of the family dispute that gradually surfaces. He is a genial grotesque who paces the tight-lipped morality play.
Just as Vic has agreed to a price, and Solomon is counting out the cash in hand, brother Walter (John Santo) walks unexpectedly through the door. He is also complimentary to Esther, and declaring he doesn’t want anything‚ proceeds to offer Vic various deals. Esther sides with Walter. Slowly the Cain-and-Abel tale of their falling out emerges.
Unlike Miller’s Oedipus tale of Death of a Salesman, there is no real primal scene that objectifies the breach, just a few insistent images from memories. Nothing is objectively settled; all is open to question, conditioned by each brothers’ character. Walter, the self-made man, erases a past he feels was a tissue of hypocrisy. Vic, who perhaps sacrificed his own dreams unnecessarily to make a lifelong ethical gesture to a ruined father, says, “I just didn’t want him to end up on the grass.”
Miller said in a 1999 interview that The Price was in response to two issues: the so-called Theater of the Absurd—and the “seemingly permanent” war in Vietnam, which never mentioned in the dialogue.
Set in 1968, this chamber play in a musty attic says something about both the humorous and pathetic absurdity of modern existence, and the personal backstory of the Depression and World War II survivors (now glibly dubbed “the greatest generation”) going into the crisis and breakup of the post-New Deal “Great Society” with, literally, all their baggage.
With Joy Carlin’s direction, this quartet of actors delivers a real evening in the theater from Miller’s play—dense with dialogue that is peppered with off-beat repetitions, neatly constructed, if not filled with the inspired moments (as well as awkward ones) of his earlier dramas, yet resilient enough to rise above banality.
The Price shows at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 9 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. $38. 843-4822. www.auroratheatre.com.