Friday, April 06, 2007

opening-night review of Arthur Miller’s *The Price*

at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble through April 21, 2007

We’re all manipulators, every one of us — and sometimes it’s easier to just go on allowing yourself to be manipulated by others than it is to admit that you’ve been a sucker all along.
In addition, memory plays its tricks: If we keep picking at our emotional scabs, sometimes long-held assumptions prove to be nothing but dust.
Sorry to start with heavy matters, but Interplayers’ production of Arthur Miller’s The Price (through April 21) is a well-acted and thought-provoking show that sort of has that effect on you — you can’t just walk out of this show unaffected and start making small talk. (Or if you do, you’re just falling prey to the kind of avoidance and self-willed ignorance that’s been on display for much of the evening.)
Despite a long first-act set-up and a talky, overextended confrontation scene (the entire second act, which stretches the evening to two and a half hours), director Reed McColm’s production probes the way we value self-sacrifice, financial success, learned helplessness, self-assertiveness and more.
And despite the usually good and sometimes phenomenal acting going on here — and its own talkiness — the real star of the evening is Miller’s 1968 script. From the naturalistic exposition to the way the show’s comedian conceals wisdom inside shtick, from the ebb and flow of conversations that are clearly uncovering old resentments to the final happy/sad image reflecting the play’s motifs of manipulation and loss, The Price lays bare the kind of costs we all pay in achieving what we think we need at the expense of what we know we really yearn for.
After a 16-year estrangement, two middle-aged brothers — a successful physician and a beat cop — meet to arrange the selling-off of their family possessions. Their father had died (not coincidentally, 16 years ago), elderly and defeated, having lost everything in the Depression. The cop’s wife and an elderly appraiser of the kind of used furniture found in estate sales round out the cast of characters.
As the police sergeant — the responsible one, the one who sacrificed so much — Maynard Villers embodies moral authority while being smart enough to keep his character’s outrage in check so that there’s something left for a second-act payoff. With hands on hips and belly protruding over his gun belt, Villers throws his literal weight around William Rosevear’s antique-strewn set while still maintaining a kind of soft-spoken gentleness around his wife, his brother, and even the junk dealer. Villers is stolid, resistant to change, but always holding his suspicions (things that he thinks he knows and holds dear) in reserve.
As wife who wants to escape being saddled with a cop’s lifestyle and sees the estate sale as a ticket to happiness, Maria Caprile seemed better at conveying Esther’s depression than her resentments and anger. With downcast looks and her gray hair in a tight bun, Caprile was quite good at portraying wifely disappointments. During some of the yelling confrontations, however, her high-pitched and nasal voice came off as screechy-strident rather than filled with the conviction of being downtrodden for 20 years and not-gonna-take-it-anymore.
But the ebb and flow of this long-married couple’s conversation was a delight to witness: You could sense the emotional shorthand between them —and which arguments were new while which other ones they’d been having for years.

But this show really takes off with the entrance of McColm as Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old Russian expatriate with a still-curious mind, a surprising background and a nose for appraising furniture and wheedling his way toward an advantageous price. (In typical style, Miller’s script doesn’t let us forget that all kinds of things have their price. You can hear the audience hush for the big lines.)
With grayed and stringy hair, with palsied hands fumbling over a cane and a notebook, his eyes suddenly goggling behind his spectacles whenever a beloved memory — or the prospect of finagling a great deal — comes over him, McColm creates a complete portrait of the Russian-inflected ex-acrobat who’s now running rings around his potential customers.
McColm’s delivery of Solomon’s speech about shopping and high-quality furniture (we fear death, so we gorge ourselves with more stuff; we fear the permanence of big acquisitions because maybe they’re all our lives are going to amount to) is worth witnessing all for itself.

McColm makes the elderly appraiser funny without descending into shtick. He makes his little jokes without making too much of them; he shows us the vitality still available in an old man’s life without doing any handstands. Through a series of misdirections — often literally looking one way while wielding his cane to point off in some other direction — McColm makes Solomon into a human and not a caricature. With questions that are tossed off nonchalantly, with eyes averted but glimmering, McColm’s old fogey turns tables on Villers’ cop and starts interrogating him. His outrage when falsely accused is all in the eyes and voice, which blink open and sputter into a higher range — none of this stamping about and waving one’s arms for McColm’s old man. He’s worthy of respect, and so is the actor portraying him.

As the older brother and successful man of medicine, Terry E. Snead looks dapper in a dark blue suit. A line of transformation follows the moments when he rubs his hands fastidiously across the front of that well-tailored suit and the moments later when he stomps and rages with that jacket removed. Snead has to convince us that the vision of a man and the era he comes to represent (Franz _pere_ and the Depression) can be seen in another light altogether, and he succeeds.

It’s a credit to Snead that Walter’s earnestness and moral reformation seem genuine to us in the second act, even though we’ve already heard from this brother for an hour about what a ne’er-do-well he was and is. Further, Snead’s characterization forcefully argues an alternate view of the Franz brother’s father. Was the helplessness of those thunderstruck by the Depression

And with the Depression reduced to “ancient history” in the minds of school kids who don’t even know which decade it took place in, will the impact of Miller’s play lessen?

It’s with some shock that veteran Miller observers will react to Walter’s gesturing toward the armchair that symbolizes the brothers’ long-dead father and declaring that he could never fully penetrate this complex man’s motivations, could never get to “the inside of his head.” That phrase, some may know, was Miller’s working title for his most famous play of nearly 20 years before, *Death of a Salesman.* (Miller’s original concept for the Salesman set was of a gigantic head that would open up and reveal the tribulations of the Loman family within.) The dead father in *The Price,* ruined by financial misfortune, hanging on after the nightmares of the Depression — a man who sees himself through the eyes of his two sons — is another version of Willy Loman.

Interplayers may have a talky, overlong, not-quite-up-to-tragic-intensity production going on — but it’s presenting an unjustly underappreciated American classic that arrives at a thought-provoking conclusion in unexpected ways. Maybe the sparse opening-night house (only 20 percent full) suggests that the Miller name doesn’t conjure the respect it once did. And after Interplayers’ recent string of middling shows and signs of financial distress, playgoers are probably taking a wait-and-see attitude. But McColm’s production of *The Price* deserves to be seen by people who care about the kind of theater that provokes conversations and burst-wide-open assumptions. With just one show remaining, it’s Interplayers’ best show of the season thus far.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home