The last Players Backstage Theatre production of the year addresses the worth of humanity through possessions.
Arthur Miller’s “The Price” considers the worth of a human life in a gripping Two Chairs production at The Players Centre for Performing Arts.
According to George Carlin, everybody wants a place for their stuff. Humanity’s quest for stuff endures, despite the fact you can’t take it with you. So, what do your survivors do with your stuff after you die? And what does that do to them? Arthur Miller’s “The Price” considers the question at the Players Backstage Theatre. It’s this season’s final production from the Two Chairs theater troupe.
The estate sale unfolds in an old brownstone in New York City in 1964. An unnamed family patriarch used to own the whole building. After the stock market crash of 1929, he took all his once-luxurious furniture to the top floor and lived there in self-imposed exile until he died. That was a while ago. Now the building’s set for the wrecking ball. Everything must go, including the old furniture. The patriarch’s son, Victor (Jim Floyd), is forced to deal with dad’s old stuff — and the bad memories that come with it.
Victor’s a beaten-down beat cop. As a kid, he was a science prodigy, but gave up those dreams to support his emotionally shattered father. His oldest brother, Walter, (Allen Kretschmar) gave up on their father, went to medical school and now enjoys the lifestyle of a wealthy surgeon. Aside from a $5-a-month stipend, Walter didn’t help Victor support his father, or even pick up the phone when his brother called. The impending estate sale awkwardly brings him back into Victor’s life. Magnanimous Walter doesn’t even want a cut of the estate sale proceeds. But what he really wants is his brother’s forgiveness, without admitting there’s anything to forgive. Victor’s wife Esther (Alyssa Goudy) wants to do the right thing, though she’d also like some nice stuff of her own for a change. Gregory Solomon (Charles Tyler), the philosophical 89-old appraiser, offers common sense advice — and a little free therapy.
Director Elliott Raines finds a fresh comic take on this material, which is an approach I’ve never seen before, but it's organic to Miller’s writing and not imposed. That said, when the second act veers into darker territory, Raines doesn’t play it for laughs.
Floyd delivers a standout performance as Victor, a decent guy, who’s discovered that no good deed goes unpunished. He’s not looking for a massive check from the estate sale. He’d rather clear out the unspoken junk that cuts his brother off from his life. But his brother’s agenda is not so clear.
Esther and Victor talk about Walter before you even see him, and the talk isn’t very flattering. (“A Portrait of the Middle-Aged Surgeon as a Total Fink” would be a good title for their verbal portrait.) When Kretschmar’s Walter finally appears, he doesn’t seem that bad. But he’s not willing to accept an iota of responsibility, either. Goudy’s Esther is a realistic, heartfelt portrayal of a woman who stands by her man without extending rubber-stamp approval to his bad decisions. Tyler’s Solomon is more than comic relief. As his name implies, he’s a natural-born philosopher — a realist with a sense of honor who can’t fully grasp what’s wrong with people these days.
My bare summary doesn’t adequately convey the play’s depths. Its philosophical questions could fill a library. The key question seems to be: “If money is a symbol of value, what’s the value of a good person who’s broke, or a bad person who’s rolling in cash?” Good question, but expect no definitive conclusion.
Philosophers write treatises to answer their questions. Storytellers write stories — and rarely come up with clear, unambiguous answers. Miller definitely fits the latter description. The backstory of “The Price” could fill a novel. (It reflects Miller’s own biography, but that’s another story.) The play’s unnamed patriarch is one of the most important characters, and you never even see him. He’s the man who isn’t there. But you feel like you know him.
As to what it all means, Miller gives a hint. He bookends the play with a laugh record from the 1920s, a laugh track-like recording of folks splitting their sides. A hit at parties, evidently.
Here, it’s a hint of a cosmic joke. Humanity gets caught up in squabbles, sales figures and turf wars. It all seems very important at the time. But in the end, everything must go.
What can you do but laugh?
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