Rita Moreno and Steven Wolf in “The Price” at Melbourne Civic Theatre. Photo by Max Thornton.
By PAM HARBAUGH
The pattern of history has imprinted itself onto the characters in Arthur Miller’s “The Price.” That each continues to pay the past’s toll is at the heart of Melbourne Civic Theatre’s engrossing production of the drama.
Set in 1968, two estranged brothers meet in a decrepit attic where is stored the last vestiges of a once wealthy family who lost it all in the Great Depression. There is a harp, richly upholstered chairs, a beautiful old cabinet, chandeliers and more. The brothers have ostensibly met to decide what to do with the heirlooms, but the men are as frozen in space and time as the detritus about them.
And, yes, you know you are in for quite the emotional ride as soon as you enter the theater and see Alan Selby’s rich scenic design which turns MCT’s small stage into the top floor of a dilapidated Manhattan brownstone. The narrow palette of browns, muted ochre and dusty amber impart decades of a past still whispering to the grown men. And Mr. Selby’s lighting design keeps the collection in the recesses so that they will not distract from the wonderful quartet of fine actors.
Steven Wolf is Victor Franz, the cop about to turn 50 and considering retirement. He is the good son who gave up going to college in order to get a job and support his father. You see him agonize over what could have been and claw his way to speaking his mind. He wants to fight, but all he can do is parry with his old fencing foil.Rita Moreno is his wife, Esther Franz. She may be petite, especially standing next to Mr. Wolf, but Ms. Moreno’s Esther is a tenacious woman, ready to tell her indecisive husband what he needs to do. And for Esther, that means make some money so she can spend more than $45 on a suit. Although his accent sort of goes here, and then sorta goes there at times, Steve Budkiewicz charms as wise Gregory Solomon, the estate appraiser who brings doses of reality to the inflated idea that the stuff is truly valuable.
It is Terrence Girard who comes in with guns blazing as Walter Franz, the brother who saw the truth about the father, left home and became a doctor. Mr. Girard paces his performance with deliberation and timing. We see Walter grow from quiet, unassuming man eager to lavish generosity to one who flares with anger over how the father exploited Victor’s goodness and in the process, ruined what could have been a big, successful career. He has wonderful monologues about the price of cutting into a patient (read: Shylock’s pound of flesh), a stunning realization about his marriage and lamentation of his lack of true riches. This is arguably Mr. Girard’s finest portrayal to date.
As directed by Peg Girard, the entire cast bring simple realism to their complex roles. We feel as though we are voyeurs watching this family summon courtesy, then lash out with truth, dig into the marrow of their father’s secrets.
Of course, this is Arthur Miller, so you know there will be more. After all, this is the man who skewered capitalism with “Death of a Salesman” and twisted the naughty-bits on squealing McCarthy-ites with “The Crucible.” Recent Broadway productions of “The Crucible” and “A View from the Bridge” have both been nominated for Tony Awards for best revival of a play. (He reportedly also served up the first draft about corruption in “On the Waterfront.”) His tragic heroes are the common man, saddled with delusion and bereft of hope. The “low man” and their families who got swept up into the tsunami of tragedy.
And “The Price” is no different. In fact, in 1999, Mr. Miller wrote an essay for The New York Times entitled “The Past and Its Power: Why I Wrote ‘The Price’.” (To read it, click here.) The main reason…Vietnam. His thesis was that the past, beginning with the Great Depression then advancing into McCarthyism of which he was a victim (HUAC denied him a passport, for one thing) set the stage for the United States to enter Vietnam. He also was influenced, he wrote, by avant garde theater.
In it, he wrote: ” ‘The Price’ was written in 1967…in some part it was a reaction to two big events that had come to overshadow all others in that decade. One was the seemingly permanent and morally agonizing Vietnam War, the other a surge of avant-garde plays that to one or another degree fit the absurd styles. I was moved to write a play that might confront and confound both.”
While the anti-Vietnam theme seems obscure in the play, the avant garde influence does not. In the first act, numbers are repeatedly used. Almost every time a character speaks, a number is uttered. She was 19 years old; 16 years ago the father died; Solomon left Russia 65 years ago when he was 25; the table is 40 inches, 32 inches; Solomon counts money over and over; $500, $4,000, $25,000…”There’s a price people paid. I paid it. Just like You.”
The second act delves more into the human heart, amping up into confrontation and startling revelations.
Yes, this is a family drama about ordinary people which, in theater speak, makes it a melodrama. But it looms larger. It’s big drama. It’s Arthur Miller. And it’s Melbourne Civic Theatre, doing what it does best.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “The Price” runs through June 26 at Melbourne Civic Theatre, 817 E. Strawbridge Ave., Melbourne. It performs 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 general and $23 seniors, military and students. All credit card purchases have a $3 handling fee per ticket. Call 321-723-6935, visit MyMCT.org or show MCT your appreciation for their support of Brevard Culture by clicking onto their ad on the right side of this page.