Arthur Miller’s The Price


Victor Talmadge, Nancy Carlin and Rolph Saxon; photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

THERE SEEMS TO BE an Arthur Miller Renaissance going on. Mike Nichols’ 2012 production of Death of a Salesman had New Yorkers fighting for tickets to watch the late Philip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman. Next month, Ivo Van Hove’s sensationally successful London New Vic version of A View from the Bridge hits Broadway, loaded down with British awards and justly hailed (I was lucky enough to catch the recent simulcast at the Lighthouse in Pacific Grove) as one of the great stage productions of this century.

By comparison with those two early masterworks, The Price, written 21 years after Salesman, is sometimes dismissed as interesting but second-class Miller. Audiences of the ‘60s, geared to the brisk visual impact and quick-action plotting of television drama, probably found Miller’s carefully detailed family saga a tad square and ponderous. It’s good that Santa Cruz’s resourceful Jewel Theatre Company is offering us a fresh look. Laid out moment by moment with the detailed precision of a chess game, the play text as interpreted in this lucid new production explodes into an ironic second act climax as penetrating and powerful as anything Miller ever wrote.It’s called The Price because it’s about evaluation, assessment, appraisal. Of things and the people who collect them.

A policeman named Victor Franz and his rich surgeon brother Walter meet in a New York attic littered with the furniture, utensils, recreational and artistic memorabilia of their past lives. It’s all been sitting up there, collecting dust and cobwebs, since their father died sixteen years ago. Faced with an unexpected demolition order on the family brownstone, the two men suddenly need a quick appraisal, a fair price and an instant sale before the bulldozers arrive.

Entering the theater, you face a set that seems like nothing so much as the reckless overflow of an out-of-control junk shop. But then the houselights dim and Victor Franz comes into focus and begins to lift dust cloths, open doors, exploring bureau drawers on items that will figure powerfully in what happens in the next two hours. He’s waiting for an 89-year-old antiques dealer named Gregory Solomon to come and do an appraisal and set a price. The process of assessing all this family stuff (treasures? junk?) becomes the visible framework on which Miller mounts, then peels away, a pattern of pretense and moral compromise that has concealed some pathetic and terrible secrets about both brothers. Director Joy Carlin wisely does not hurry Victor’s studied exploration of his family’s flotsam and jetsam. The program lists four actors. But the set itself is going to become a fifth.

The brothers are nicely contrasted. Victor Talmadge, playing his policeman namesake, seems sensitively uncomfortable in his cop’s pistol and uniform. When Walter, the socially superior brother he’s hardly spoken to for 16 years, shows up in the person of the exemplary Rolph Saxon, the newcomer’s outward social ease conceals an underlying push, salesmanship and commitment to action that suggest Saxon ought to be playing the cop and Talmadge the rich surgeon. But that, of course, is just the point.
Their sibling rivalry has flared up because the reflective Victor, against the grain of his innate sensitive idealism, gave up promising academic studies to walk the beat and pay the bills of a father traumatized by the 1929 crash. By contrast, the less gifted but more ambitious Walter has cut himself off from family ties and ruthlessly pursued a profitable one-man career in upscale surgery.

That’s the situation. Bravo sacrificial Victor. Shame on selfish Walter. Or so it seems. As Victor’s shrewd, ambitious wife Esther keeps reminding us, you can’t always believe what you see.

Talmadge skillfully plays the conflict in Victor between a desire to appease and accommodate (“I don’t know how to bargain!”) and a stiff morality which weighs up every option so carefully that he usually ends up choosing nothing. As Walter, Saxon is both dynamic and touchingly vulnerable. Watch the way he pauses to listen and absorb what other characters say. And notice how his lines are never words memorized from a manuscript but eruptions of discovery or bursts of fresh understanding dredged up from inside a real person. It’s a fine performance.

As Victor’s long-suffering wife, Nancy Carlin is in every way a match for the two men. She ably projects Esther’s understandable annoyance with her husband’s stubborn adherence to a lackluster, low-paying job which they both hate and his high-minded hesitation about whether to let Walter give him all the earnings of Solomon’s assessment. But Carlin never allows Esther’s frustration to turn her into a tiresome nag. She understands that Miller has set up powerful emotional battles but never takes sides. For all her domestic struggles she remains believable and appealing, a woman whose greatest strength emerges in those moments when, whatever the odds, it’s clear she deeply loves her husband.

In the pivotal role of the appraiser Solomon, Arje Shaw is a physically winsome comic old fellow, blessed with an generous range of facial expressions. But his line delivery is so brisk and full of quirky Yiddish energy that some of the texture and wisdom of what Solomon has to say gets lost in the breakneck pace with which Shaw says it. The old antiques dealer is more than just a pleasing piece of comic relief. For all his wry cajoling, Solomon provides an anchor of folk wisdom and reality to a story stalked by pretense and self-delusion. This deeper dimension of the character is not always clear in Shaw’s sprightly comic portrayal. Fortunately his performance mellows. As the play progresses he finds some welcome areas of pathos and reflection. The final moments of the action, with Solomon alone on stage at first convulsed with laughter and then stirred by doubts as he listens to a scratchy phonograph record, are touching and effective.

Miller’s script is grounded in the solid, old-fashioned and admirable belief that dramatic tension isn’t a matter of a lot of busy stage activity but of having to assess and reassess, decide and maybe re-decide again who everybody really is. Those discoveries, as the story enters its final hour, have the explosive force of plot revelations in a well written thriller. There’s a startling and unsuspected truth about Victor, for instance, that is all the more shocking for having been evident in plain view all evening as a piece of Ken Dorsey’s jigsaw of a stage set.

What that piece is you’ll only know if you make your way to Center Stage in Santa Cruz for this fine production of a great play.

It’s a worthy opener of Jewel’s new season but their last production in the current venue at 1001 Center Street. The season continues November 12 with Guys and Dolls, in the new Colligan Theater now under construction at the Tannery Arts Center.