The few plays of Arthur Miller’s later career able to stand beside the four early masterpieces deal with the same themes of family, responsibility, dreams, honesty and personal responsibility. The Price, premiered in 1968, ends up reflecting Death of a Salesman and, like the early plays, it derives present problems and disputes from deep-rooted antagonisms and deceptions in the past.
The action of The Price plays continuously and was originally planned to run without an interval, though at 2 hours stage time that takes the audience out of its comfort zone. In the two act version it’s a play of two halves. In Act 1 Victor Franz, a soon-to-be-retired New York policeman, visits his father’s old apartment to sell the furniture to a dealer. His father is long dead, but the apartment has never been cleared; now the block is to be demolished. Victor skirmishes with his wife, Esther, who has problems with health, alcohol and the paltry amounts of money Victor generates. Then an 89-year-old dealer arrives, happier to talk about himself or the stories the apartment contains than to do business. Much of the first half is taken up with his wisecracks and homespun wisdom. Then Victor’s brother Walter arrives and the second half moves into recrimination, truth-telling and failed attempts at reconciliation between the brothers, with Esther always ready to join the fray.
The issue seems simple, but becomes increasingly complicated. The Franzes, a prosperous and socially rather pretentious family, fell victim to the Great Depression. When Mr Franz, a hollow shell of a man, moved out of his grand apartments into this cramped top-floor bolt-hole, one brother, Walter, concentrated on his medical career and moved onward and upward. The other, Victor, abandoned his college course to join the police and look after father. When the brothers meet, after years of estrangement, the issues within this are gradually (and increasingly passionately) aired – and nothing is exactly as it seems!
On my latest viewing of The Price the part of Gregory Solomon, the dealer, now seems to me a problem. He is rather too near the archetypal Jewish trader, but Act 1 depends on the success of an extended comic turn that is also full of wisdom and humanity. Thus the part needs a performance totally out of the ordinary to bring it to life. Unlike the astonishing Warren Mitchell in 2003, Kenneth Alan Taylor is very good, but no more, and we notice the repetitions and clichés.
Tom Mannion is outstanding as Victor, decent, apologetic, rational (apparently), understated, finally explosive and illogical, bearing failure as a badge of honour. He is supported by excellent performances from Colin Stinton, urbanely successful as Walter, but reduced to the same furious name-calling as his brother, and Suzan Sylvester whose bruised sense of self as Esther is totally convincing. In a production which originates at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre Miller expert David Thacker directs with naturalistic ease and Patrick Connellan’s cluttered set helps to make us feel part of the attic action.