Review: The Price (Soulpepper)

Anyone who says there is no good theatre in Canada has never been to a show at Soulpepper. The caliber of show is equivalent to any play you will see on Broadway – from the house itself to the set to the acting. Last night I went to see Arthur Miller’s The Price with my good friend Joe – a writer and huge Miller fan. Honestly, I’m somewhat ashamed to say, I felt more like I was catching a great show in NYC than in the Distillery District. This was a nice reminder as to how good theatre can be in Toronto.

Like my date, I have long appreciated Arthur Miller’s better-known works, like The Crucible and Death of a Salesman that are oft studied and performed. This piece was new to me though and it was written in 1968, much later in his life than his more famous work.

It is the story of Victor, who has come to put a price on the 16-year-old contents of his parents’ once glorious house. We learn that he is at the right age for retirement but he fights it, unsure of his next move and of his choices. His wife Esther is frustrated with their inability to get their life started, even though they are middle-aged. An appraiser comes, full of life in spirit but near to death in body. The cast is rounded out by an unexpected visit from Victor’s distant brother Walter.

The beauty of this piece is surely in the details. Phillip Silver’s set is astounding – the room really looks as it has been sitting for 16 years, with furniture in dust covers, old records, headboards, and dressers. Silver orchestrates the lights as well: one by one, each piece and truth is revealed throughout the play. The empty chair haunts us, the record of simple laughter bemuses us, and the heartbreaks of the house are plainly felt.

The details in Diana Leblanc’s direction are flawless. Joe particularly loved the start of the play where there is a long period where we simply notice the history that the lead character has with the space. It is perfect. In Joe’s words, “There is an understatement of the action that really lets you settle in”.

What I personally loved was the perfect attention to dialogue and characterization. I was raised in New England and I felt as though I had traveled back in time to watch my grandparents deal with the heartbreak of their later lives.

Michael Hanrahan and Jane Spidell had different takes on this sound of older New England Americana in the 1950s and 60s. I thought their interpretations were both spot-on. His is a bit more of a blue collar, fast-paced South Shore Massachusetts personality, and she is a more old-timey version of an old American trying to sound more upper-class, like my mother – think Connecticut or the Hamptons. They use phrases my parents and grandparents often use – expressions like “self-sufficient” and “that’s a hell of a note.”

Miller was, of course, the great American playwright of my parents and grandparents’ time. But they were all too busy working and being disappointed and disillusioned to watch a play about being…disappointed and disillusioned.

David Fox’s role as furniture appraiser Gregory Solomon is priceless. I don’t know how old Fox actually is, but he plays an old man so perfectly that the character will make you laugh and break your heart. When he notices Esther is suspicious of him he chides, “A girl that believes everything – how you gonna trust her?”

I felt the play is constructed in such a way as to elicit hatred of Stuart Hughes’s Walter, but toward the end you are able find him as endearing and confusing as any other member of this ensemble.

We all know that you have to be asleep in order to believe the American Dream. Arthur Miller’s plays are often about the pain of waking up. I was particularly interested in how The Depression affected all of these characters, even years and years later. It seems hauntingly fitting in these recessionist times.

But in classic Miller style, the play delves deeper in the dynamics of the American family with probing questions about the family roles both chosen and thrust on us: martyr, or prodigal son; frustrated wife who is haunted by the advice of her mother; the choices a father makes; whether we can ever truly answer why; and what the price we pay for our roles and our choices really cost.

Soulpepper has polished off an old rare gem that the American canon barely knew it had. They have set this stone so perfectly that we can now see it for the brilliance that it was and still is today. It is simple perfection. And that’s a hell of a note.

– The Price is playing at Soulpepper until October 23, 2011 on various days of the week. Matinees begin at 2:00 pm, and evening performances at 8:00pm.
– Performances take place at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Building 49.
-Tickets are $28 to $65. They can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416.866.8666. Rush tickets may be available an hour before showtime.

One thought on “Review: The Price (Soulpepper)”

  1. … the above review makes a comparison between soulpepper’s production of “the price” and a broadway production (“The caliber of show is equivalent to any play you will see on Broadway”). … albeit, the comparison seems intended to hilight the positives of the production at soulpepper, it seems, perhaps inadvertently to suggest that broadway is an artistic standard, when, as of the last fifteen years — say, the mid-to-late nineties when the mayor of new york was rudy giuliani was at the peak of power — broadway has come to stnad more to a genre of entertainment than quality, relevance or imagination.
    … “broadway” is virtually synonymous with middle-of-the-road, unprovocative work that will pull-in as many people as possible. sure, there’s a lot of money behind the productions there. but, that’s increasingly all it has to offer. … soulpepper likely spends lavishly on talent, sets and faciliities, but i’d argue, its artistic choices offer more substance and its season, overall, more variety, than what broadway has to offer at this time … so the comparison between the two is, to me at least, a bit misleading …

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