Great Depression Without End

Despite spending six years between the sheets with Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller was a gloomy guy. His works are famous and varied and very, very beautiful, but they do not contain many smiles. Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, View From a Bridge, the two-dozen others — they all suggest an America that is desperately sad, filled with soulless greedheads, and guileless lemmings. In Miller's America, there is no bull market for happiness, and no honest man goes unpunished.

If, as has been suggested, the American Dream amounts to a desire for an unearned freedom from dread, then almost all of Miller's work endeavors to illuminate the betrayal one feels when dread refuses to be banished. The Price is no different, save in hinting that it may be possible for individuals to escape the country's dark emotional oubliette. In Death of a Salesman, Willy and his blind dreamers were doomed and everybody knew it; in The Price, misery is less a fact of life than a state of mind. But it's tenacious.

The story follows Victor Franz (Mark Ulrich) through an afternoon in the attic of a New York brownstone, sometime in 1968. The attic contains the possessions of Victor's father, a businessman who was forced to end his days there after being ruined by the Great Depression. Unable to work, immobilized with craziness and paranoia, he'd needed Victor's support to avoid homelessness. Victor dutifully gave up school and became a police officer, trying to forget his dream of a career in the sciences. Meanwhile, the two were abandoned by Victor's brother, Walter (Dan Leonard), who opted to forget about dad and become a wildly rich physician. Now, sixteen years after his father's death, Victor has asked an appraiser (Gregory Solomon, played by Palm Beach Dramaworks stalwart Peter Haig) to come and assess the contents of the attic, hoping to score a chunk of cash before the brownstone is leveled. As the estate's price is discussed, Victor gets into some very-serious disagreements with his wife (Esther, played by Patti Gardner), the two brothers are reunited, and everybody's life gets ruined by big, bad capitalism.

An afternoon as history-and-weirdness laden as this can raise all kinds of hell with the psyche, and so it does. The central and most heart-wrenching tragedy of the production is the persistent ache that pervades Victor and Esther's marriage. They lead good lives, or could if they wanted — Victor is an upstanding citizen doing meaningful work, and Esther could make anything she wished of herself, if only she worked up the courage to get off her couch. But they're miserable for reasons that would sound petty if they weren't so universal: they feel betrayed by the implied promise of American life, and their secure existence in the country's lower middle class feels like nothing so much as imprisonment. They cannot help but compare their lives to the luxurious one they imagine Victor's estranged brother enjoying, and everything they own, their every achievement, every facet of their marriage is inescapably subject to, and cheapened by, that comparison.

It's a complicated situation to illuminate, but the people at Palm Beach Dramaworks are uniformly expert. The direction is smart and unpretentious, and I'm absolutely convinced that Scenic Designer and Artist Sean McClelland must have sold a kidney or three to acquire the vast, gorgeous collection of period detritus that inhabits the brownstone's attic. A massive harp, a vintage wardrobe, vintage rugs, vintage lamps and gorgeous vintage furniture — everything speaks clearly of desiccated bourgeois grandeur, circa 1929.

From the play's first moments, when Ulrich's Victor Franz appears in uniform and turns on a "laughing record"—some novelty from the '20's, a coronet playing a melody while random people guffaw — the actors bring the script's full weight to bear on their every word and gesture. When Victor recalls watching homeless men congregate in a park during the Depression and making a vow that his father would never join their ranks, the rage and conviction in his voice seem to support more than the script: He is delivering a verdict on an entire country. This is one of the few moments during which he's allowed to display any strength at all. The rest of the time, his face and voice are such a mess of confusion that his officer's uniform seems like Miller's sick joke. If this man tried to arrest you, you'd kick him in the shins and run away, laughing.

Patti Gardner and Dan Leonard are similarly fascinating, if less obviously broken. Leonard's Walter Franz is a self-made man who's desperately afraid of being unmasked as a fraud and villain, and he broadcasts a great, hollow bravado. Gardner's Esther subsumes the economic indignities she imagines she's suffered into a bloodless hauteur, a rocky façade that cracks in all the right places.

But Peter Haig's Greg Solomon is the heart and soul of the affair. He looks and acts like John Jacob Niles on methamphetamine, and he's hilarious. Deploying a pitch-perfect Russian accent, Haig finds humor in lines that Miller only meant to be strange. An eighty-something retiree who lives in the back of an abandoned antique shop, a survivor of countless economic hardships, the father of a daughter who long ago took her own life, the irrepressibly friendly Solomon is a kind of walking promise. His obstinate embrace of life's small joys in the face of its huge tragedies might well point the way for The Price's other luckless characters, if only they had the imagination to notice.

The play ends much as it begins — a man walking silently through a dead businessman's acquired possessions, listening to a laughing record. This time, it is Solomon, not Franz, who is listening. As the record begins cackling, Solomon laughs in turn, and it is the purest moment of pleasure in the entire production. Although hours have been spent debating the worth of the record itself, Solomon seems interested only in its contents: Hearing them spill out, he is at peace. The play's other characters have been gobbled up by the American Dream, but just then, Solomon is ennobled by it. If the grin he sports as the lights dim is any clue, the difference was always a matter of perspective.

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Brandon K. Thorp