There’s a ‘Price’ to Pay

One of Arthur Miller’s last plays; a psychological drama in an effective new production at Vienna’s English Theatre

Gregory Solomon (Ray Reinhart) & Victor Franz (Andy Prosky) playing in the Price by Arthur Miller | Photo: Vienna English Theatre

Esther (Leisa Mather) behind Vic in the Price by Arthur Miller; playing at English Theatre | Photo: Vienna English Theatre

The result of poor choices plays out in Arthur Miller’s The Price, directed by the late Robert Prosky at Vienna’s English Theatre, a story of greed, sacrifice and family failure where misunderstandings are revealed in a tangle of domestic conflict and feuding.

Written in 1968, it is a play of changing generations and social identity: In the attic of a Manhattan brownstone, two estranged brothers meet again after many years sorting through the shards and the memories of their parents’ life. Lost to each other with their father’s fortunes in the Crash of 1929, they try in vain to reclaim the lives they never got to share.

Gregory Solomon (Ray Reinhart) & Victor Franz (Andy Prosky) playing in the Price by Arthur Miller | Photo: Vienna English Theatre

The English Theatre is situated in a quiet lane off Landesgerichtstrasse behind the Rathaus, difficult to find unless one knows where to look. But once inside, a timeless air of ancien régime settles over you, the ornate decor conjuring up a time, not so long ago, when theater ruled the world of entertainment.

Its intimacy is well suited to this very personal work. One of Arthur Miller’s last pieces for the stage, The Price is an absorbing psychological drama that is exceptionally theatrical and fast paced, easily sustained over the two hours and ten minutes running time. And while perhaps not among Miller’s greatest plays – the characters border on stock, the motivations predictable – the Price is still compelling, the high energy, well-crafted dialogue completely convincing.

In this story the present is directed by the past, and the audience listens to explanations of how earlier choices have brought the characters to the situation at hand. On a dark stage, the 1920’s classic I lLove a Piano by Irving Berlin sets the mood of a more innocent world before the Crash.

The set under the eves of the old house never changes. The heavy carved furnishings, the trunks, boxes, and baubles from another era clutter the stage: an armoire filled with the gathered skirts and padded shoulders of the 1930s, a pile of scratchy 78s, and a long, wooden oar from summers gone by. The set’s soft light shines through the skeletal beams of the building, illuminating as it hides.

As the play opens, New York City police sergeant Vic Franz (Andy Prosky) must decide over his late-parents’ belongings. Having trying to reach his younger brother with whom he hasn’t spoken in sixteen years, he has contacted an antiques dealer, and moves ahead with the difficult decisions to keep or, sell or give away. Some of the things are valuable and may change the outcome of his later years.

Vic chose to stand by his father through his final years, a sacrifice that has gone largely unrecognized. With his faded royal-blue police suit, he worries about how society judges him. His brother Walter (Gary Sloan) was spurred by ambition, even greed. He has become a famous surgeon, meanwhile sending home a mere $5 a month for his father to live on. When Walter arrives unexpectedly, dressed to the nines, they fall into a heated debate about personal identity as Act One skids to a close.

The perpetual conversation about money is a struggle between wealth and integrity, and the director uses this to his full advantage. This subscript underlines distinct social values and identities; Vic is a disappointed man, with contempt for his own life as an underpaid police sergeant, a view shared by his wife Esther (Leisa Mather), who had hoped for more. She hounds Vic for answers – about their life choices, their marriage, and their finances – and still dreams of happiness, the tension weighing heavily like the musty air in the room.

Esther (Leisa Mather) behind Vic in the Price by Arthur Miller; playing at English Theatre | Photo: Vienna English Theatre

The scene finally breaks with the arrival of Gregory Solomon (Ray Reinhardt), a wise, if not lovable, Jewish furniture dealer. Solomon moves slowly and systematically through the scene, which unnerves an already impatient Vic, as the old man complains of the “disposable” society.

In Act II, the underlying theme of the Franz family’s failure comes into focus. Both brothers are dogmatic and neither listens. Each has his own reasons for believing his version is right, and each tries to convince the other.

Walter tells Vic, “You wanted a real life. And that’s an expensive thing; it costs.” Vic argues for honor, “There’s a price people pay. I’ve paid it, it’s all gone; I haven’t got it any more. Just like you paid, didn’t you?”

Solomon as his name suggests, tries to find a balance. He has lived a long life, and is thankful for it; he sees each day as a kind of gift. Unlike the others, he doesn’t seem afraid of dying.

Miller was reaching for “a fine balance of sympathy,” according to his production notes. There is a great deal of passion and shouting throughout, spread heavily across the stage. But there is no resolution, leaving at least one viewer unsatisfied. What would have convinced these brothers to reconcile their differences in the first place?

In the end, Esther screams in frustration, “Why is finality always so unreal?” Perhaps this is just what Miller had in mind.

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