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Friday, April 2, 2010

The Price at Pittsburgh Public Theatre

Posted By on Fri, Apr 2, 2010 at 4:54 PM

I had read this 1968 play by Arthur Miller in preparation for a preview piece for CP (www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A76024). And given how straightforward Miller is, it didn't seem too difficult to envision how it would all play out on stage.

On the other hand, a smart opening directorial gambit by Tracy Brigden surprised me a little, and also helped emphasize an important aspect of this production: the set.

The play opens with Victor Franz, a middle-aged New York cop, entering the attic where he once lived with his father, a businessman ruined by the Depression. The place has been vacant for years; Victor's here now only because the building's to be demolished.

The Price is a talky if engrossing play for four characters; it's two acts (which Miller originally wrote as one) that take place in real time in a single room. Brigden's well aware this set-up contravenes current theatrical trends, which is all about five-minute scenes and as many set changes as you can feasibly manage. (Witness The Clockmaker, which Brigden recently directed at City Theatre, where she's artistic director.) You think she'd be keen to move things along.

But for several minutes at least as The Price begins, Victor's on stage alone, and doesn't speak a word. Instead, he lingers over the detritus of his family's lost life -- incarnate reminders of his own affluent childhood as well as his unhappy young adulthood. Dusty armchairs, the big old harp his late mother played, the remains of boyhood electronics experiments, the family gramophone. Brigden has him take wordless stock of each, and lets them sink in for us, too, before most of the audience even knows much of what the play's about.

Of course, if they know Miller, they could hazard a guess: It's a family drama about the weight of the past. That's where Luke Hegel-Cantarella's set comes in especialy. These six or seven minutes -- a pause before there's anything to pause -- lets the audience take in Hegel-Cantarella's expressionistic addition to the realistic set. It's a sort of three-story-tall flying buttress upstage, comprised of more of what's on the stage itself: armoires, armchairs, straight-backed chairs, a sofa, a bicycle.

It reminded me of the set for the Point Park REP's production of Miller's Death of a Salesman a few years back: another wall of a lifetime's accumulation, that one heavy on the sports equipment Biff and Happy left behind.

Here, likewise, this backdrop looms over all the action, unchanging, reminding us of what the characters can't shed: Willy Loman his baseless hopes and dreams, Victor Franz his bitterness and resentment. (Miller's counterpoints in each play also have counterparts: Willy Loman's wealthy adventurer of a brother -- and even Biff, who finally abandons the domestic charade; here, Walter Franz, the brother who virtually abandoned the family and got on with his life.)

Without the dramaturgical rest stop Brigden provides, we'd probably never have a chance to soak in all the set provides. Because once The Price gets going, it flies along pretty quickly after all.

The Price continues at the O'Reilly Theater through Sun., April 4. 

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