"All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Tolstoy's famous opening lines to Anna Karenina lifted the lid on the pot of stewing emotions that exist in almost every familial setting. A lot of writers have poked around in that pot since, Arthur Miller not least among them.
He does so in The Price, a drama first performed in 1968 that is part of Theatre Three's 1995-'96 season of all-American plays. Like Miller's All My Sons and Death of a Salesman, The Price examines how the exercise of human will can alienate us from both our loved ones and from ourselves.
It receives an expert staging in this production. The subtlety and professionalism of the piece begins with Harland Wright's set design. Associated with Theatre Three since 1966, Wright knows how to extract the maximum dramatic effect from the stage's cozy, in-the-round space.
His set shows the jumbled remains of one family's possessions that have been in storage for years. With its stacks of china, thick, imposing-looking volumes heaped on one another, an old globe, tables, wardrobes, chests of drawers, a radio, an antique wind-up record player, and chairs piled together at odd angles, the set is as hopelessly cluttered and tangled as the emotional history in which most families are trapped.
The stuff has been sitting in an old house for 16 years, since the patriarch of the Franz family, a millionaire reduced by the Depression to a messenger boy, kicked the bucket. The property was never disposed of because Franz's two sons, Victor and Walter, were estranged and couldn't reconcile their differences long enough to divvy it up. Now, however, the house where the two were raised is being destroyed, and so they are forced to resolve a long-standing issue.
Victor (Thurmon Moss), is the first brother to enter the house, which he does like an old soldier revisiting a battlefield. He even picks up a weapon that is lying about--an old fencing foil with which he once performed deeds of grace and daring. His wife, Esther (Gene Ray Price), then enters the scene, and the history of the Franz family is soon laid out.
Victor, it appears, was the dutiful son who took care of his emotionally crippled old man. He dropped out of college and joined the police force in order to support his father, sacrificing a promising career as a scientist along the way. Pushing 50, Victor is eligible for a police pension, but he's trapped by the inertia generated through 28 years of ineffectuality and disaffection. Esther, an erstwhile dabbling poet, thirsts for money and the experiences it can buy, and she pushes her husband to do something to redeem their past unhappiness. Like many female characters (at least those created by male writers, anyway), she is fundamentally practical and only wants to gain something tangible from the sale of the property.
Enter Gregory Solomon (Melvin O. Dacus), an 89-year-old Jewish immigrant appraiser with a varied and romantic past. A man with a Platonic turn of mind, he believes that individual perspective shapes reality, and he proselytizes for his point of view.
Victor, a scientist by inclination, has the Aristotelian urge to objectively quantify reality, to pin it down to a specific law or to a bottom-line price. In spite of himself, however, he can't help but be influenced by Solomon's more imaginative perspective and by his obvious humanity.
The two men initially oppose each other, and the best part of Act I consists of their philosophical sparring. Dacus, a well known figure in Dallas-Fort Worth theater (he was instrumental in developing Cowtown's Casa Maana Playhouse), brings large reserves of experience and wit to his role. Miller supplies his character with some pretty pungent lines, and Dacus knows what to do with them.
Moss offers an ideal contrast. With his blunt, prosaic face and figure, he creates a sympathetic but not self-pitying portrait of a naturally stolid yet sensitive man caught in the grips of an ontological struggle.
While Act I is diverting and often amusing, Act II provides the emotional payoff. The balance struck between Victor, Esther, and Solomon is immediately overturned by Walter's arrival. Walter, in Victor's book, is the bad brother, the one who turned his back on his father. A successful surgeon, Walter simplemindedly pursued his own ambition, and in the process, alienated both his brother and his own wife and children.
Now, however, he believes he has gained new insight into his life and wants to reconcile with Victor. But Victor is having none of it. He won't give his brother the satisfaction of an easy rapprochement until he's laid his pain and resentment on the table.
As played by Hugh Feagin, Walter is the most compelling character on the stage. Feagin brings to the role the glittering intelligence and utter contempt certain gifted, capable people have for the less efficient and successful.
As he says of his own son, with undiluted scorn, "Of all the mysteries in the world there are to explore, he chose the guitar." To him, Solomon is a doddering old fool who is obviously using a cheap sharper's tricks to drive down the price of the property. That Solomon is more interested in imparting a lesson never occurs to him.
The two brothers then go at it, saying the kind of penetrating, wounding, and revelatory things people in just about every family probably should get around to saying to each other but rarely do.
Though not one of Miller's more celebrated plays, The Price definitely has emotional bite, along with a number of telling lines. Reminiscing about the Depression, when near-universal hard times made people a little more relaxed and sociable, Solomon says wistfully, "there was a lot more daytime screwing in those days." Esther neatly describes the mindset of bullies (and many bosses) when she says of Walter, "You think that just because you can frighten people, they love you."
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And finally, the rather grim conclusion of the play, spoken by Victor: "There is no mercy in life. One day you're head of the table, the next day you're shit."
It's a pleasure to see four mature actors playing off each other with such subtlety and precision. Just as pleasing, the continually changing emotional pitch and rhythm of this quartet is very adeptly conducted by director Jac Adler. Lighting designer Linda Blase also does a terrific job reflecting and enhancing the shifting moods of the play.
The Price may not be as cathartic as an open-heart session with your own family, but it might be the next best thing.
The Price runs through October 22 at Theatre Three. Call 871-3300.