Sunday, September 4, 2011

Room to Improve: Soulpepper's Production of Arthur Miller's The Price

Eighteen months ago, I had the privilege to direct The Price by Arthur Miller for the Village Players. For me, the cast and the crew, it was an invigorating experience.So it was exciting for all of us to learn that a Soulpepper production was going to be staged in 2011. The Price opened September 2nd to a packed house of friends, colleagues, students and theatre critics. So my review is probably best understood coming as a former director rather than as a critic removed from the work.

Arthur Miller’s play first debuted in 1968. It’s the story of Victor Franz (Michael Hanrahan), an aging police officer, who has to sell the furniture and worldly belongings of his dead father because the building in which they are stored, is being torn down. So he calls up the aging Gregory Solomon (David Fox), a dealer, to come and assess the value or the price of the goods. His brother Walter (Stuart Hughes), who he has not spoken to (or seen in 16 years), shows up as an equal partner in the imbursement of the estate. Esther (Jane Spidell), Victor’s wife, is also a participant looking to support her husband through this transaction, but as Solomon states upon his arrival, “with used furniture you cannot get emotional.” This prediction comes true over the course of the play.

Since The Price takes place in real time, and in one location, the thoughtfully arranged set is the most striking thing you'll notice. Phillip Silver, who also looked after lighting and costumes, creates the very top of a New York brownstone with a slanted roof and a single window. Miller’s description was taken quite literally. Silver has filled the stage as if there were 10 rooms of furniture crammed into one. This may provide limited space for the actors to move, but it's important to understanding the cramped relationships between the brothers. I think it could have been even tighter, but perhaps it wasn’t possible as The Price shares the same stage as White Biting Dog in the Michael Young Theatre.

Jane Spidell, Stuart Hughes and Michael Hanrahan
The character of Victor is one of the most difficult roles in modern theatre and Michael Hanrahan’s superb performance, which requires him to be on stage for the entire play, was the strongest. He brings a steady sensibility to the role of a worn out New York City police officer who silently rummages through the relics of his past. Victor mournfully uncovers the chairs, tables, lamps and sofas that were once a part of his youth. Jane Spidell, as Esther, is a typically underwritten female character in Miller’s works. But it’s also a difficult role to play because it’s only partially defined by the writer. So any actress who gets the part has an open pallet in bringing the character to life. Spidell succeeds in creating a street-wise woman who has low self-esteem, but is determined to do right by her husband. She gives quite a memorable performance despite some odd positioning on stage. (In the second part of the play, she spends way too much time seated away from the central action with her back turned.)

David Fox
Veteran Canadian actor David Fox plays Gregory Solomon just as he's written. Solomon is an old, Jewish furniture dealer nearing his 90th birthday and full of stories and sad tales of woe. Married four times, Solomon’s great fa├žade is couched in the ever-present memory of his daughter who committed suicide. But Fox’s performance has little of the depth that Miller’s writing reflects. His delivery is often too fast; throwing his lines away like a grumpy old man who’s hard of hearing. He was funny, but only in a superficial way. I would have liked to see more of the kinder, gentler sage that reveals to us how Solomon is not just a furniture dealer: he also has wisdom to share. Fox does come close to fully inhabiting the character on one occasion when he stops to eat a hard-boiled egg in the middle of negotiations with Victor. Here the connection between the actors was at its strongest.

Arthur Miller has always written solid, male characters and the men in The Price easily compares to the men in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons. They are a blend of both masculinity and sensitivity. Stuart Hughes, who’s performance as Kent in Soulpepper’s production of King Lear (2006), was outstanding. He brings an earthy strength to the character of Walter. Hughes wears fine clothes and carries himself with a great deal of swagger on stage. But one of the interesting aspects about The Price is that the audience knows all about Walter in the first half of the play before his surprise arrival. I liked Hughes' performance because he effectively captures the independence that his brother never had. (He oozes the kind of self-confidence that Victor can only dream about.)

But I wanted to see more pathos brought out in the role. Hughes' swagger is a little less called for particularly when Walter admits to having the “breakdown” that almost resulted in the murder of his wife. It’s a shocking revelation to one who’s been the favoured son in the family. For Miller, Walter isn’t better than Victor in The Price; he’s wounded and has taken therapeutic steps to overcome his depression.

The Price is a dynamic play because its one of the few plays in Arthur Miller’s canon that doesn’t have scenes reflecting on the past, or imagining the future. The story arc is much, much shorter, nailed in the present and offering the actors an opportunity to dig deep into their creative powers and form real, well-rounded individuals. Consequently, Soulpepper’s production of The Price, which runs until September 29th, can only get better.

- John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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