The Price

[The following review is scheduled to appear in abbreviated form in the Denver Post on Friday, November 24th.]

In the cluttered attic of our minds, we preserve many things, resentments as well as songs, that comprise the details of our personal mandalas—what Jung calls our symbols of integration. In The Price, now in production at Germinal Stage Denver, Arthur Miller brings to life four quite different mythologies—the thwarted, taciturn cop, Victor; his wife, the ambitious and feisty Esther; his brother, the suave, successful doctor; and a wise old appraiser named Solomon—and eloquently resolves them all with bittersweet drama.

Most people have never heard of The Price, because by 1968, when it began its run of 425 performances on Broadway, the critics were displeased with Miller for refusing to duplicate his famous tragedies. But the critics do this to all the greats when their work moves beyond the noble ambitions of classical form into the ethereal psychology of the avant-garde, where the ultimate existential questions lay just beyond reach.

When Victor Franz, the once hopeful chemistry student now 50-year old flatfoot in Manhattan, enters the attic of the soon to be demolished brownstone his family inhabited for two generations, he spends some time rummaging through the once-stylish heap of furniture, trunks, lamps, and other sundry remnants before the appraiser arrives. Underneath his neatly-pressed uniform, he's still trim and fit on the verge his pensioned retirement.

He is drawn to the Victrola, where he fires up an arcane 78: "Now Mr. Gallagher, now Mr. Gallagher, will you tell me what that question really means, I just wanted to find out ..."

In these first deliberate moments of the play, director Ed Baierlein and Paul Caouette, as Victor, establish the touchstones of what is, essentially, a memory play. Caouette handles the worn antiques with matter-of-fact care, as a wizened detective might examine the evidence from a once important case. At this point, we're not sure whether he won or lost; after all, he's a professional trained at masking his hand.

Paul Caouette as Victor and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo as Esther
Paul Caouette as Victor and
Erica Sarzin-Borrillo as Esther
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
To Esther, however, he's a man who has never lived up to his potential, and when she shows up in the attic a few minutes later, we learn in no time that she thinks her husband should use his upcoming retirement to go back to school and resurrect the scientific career he deferred to support his ruined father through the Great Depression.

As was the case with so many women in the '50's, Esther uses her commercial instincts to further her husband's career, but the thin veneer of economic respectability worn by a policeman's wife has been a trial. Today, however, in her new dress—a stylish period cut—Erica Sarzin-Borrillo's Esther is ready to break out.

The marvel of Sarzin-Borrillo's work is that despite Esther's strident critiques of Victor's choices, we see her intense need to believe in her own life—her marriage being central to this. So, in the end, unlike Victor and Walter, she finds peace by taking her own advice and adjusting her point of view. She is a heroine that overcomes her flaw and averts a wider tragedy.

Tupper Cullum as Walter and Paul Caouette as Victor
Tupper Cullum as Walter
and Paul Caouette as Victor
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
Tupper Cullum's breezy entrance, as Walter, just before intermission immediately raises the stakes of the drama and lifts the intricate premises that Miller has built for nearly an hour into a dynamic, life-defining second act.

Cullum imbues Walter with such ease and self-assuredness that we effortlessly hang with him as he takes an unexpected U-turn with his life. Owning up to his guilt over his success at Victor's expense, Walter stakes a claim to the moral high ground by turning the feeble deal to which Victor has agreed with the estate appraiser into an offer of the very life and economic respectability for which Esther has long hungered.

Albert Banker as Gregory Solomon and Paul Caouette as Victor
Albert Banker as Gregory Solomon
and Paul Caouette as Victor
Photo: Germinal Stage Denver
Into this long-simmering imbroglio, Miller injects Gregory Solomon, a crafty and ancient, but not quite retired, estate appraiser. Enveloped in a comically thick Russian-Yiddish accent and an untamed salt-and-pepper mane, Albert Banker sidles his way into our hearts with a unique blend of schmaltz, chutzpah and Solomonic wisdom, providing a catalyst for the family members' bargain with their pasts.

When an exasperated Walter jettisons his guilt and leaves in a huff, Victor settles on the price with Solomon, recalling William Blake's piercing inquiry, "What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all the man hath, his house, his wife, his children." (William Blake, The Price of Experience, 1797).

Here, Caouette's decisive self-confidence reinvigorates Victor with the principles upon which he has staked his life. That Esther joins him in this affirmation completes Miller's sophisticated conceit—the enigmatic contrast between four reaffirmed mythologies and the irretrievable familial schism from which they arise. Baierlein's final touch—Solomon cranking up the old Victrola to answer the initial question put forth on the equally apt 78 played by Victor in the first scene—is sublime. Go listen.

The Germinal Stage Denver's production of The Price runs through December 10th. 303-455-7108.

Bob Bows


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