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The Price at the Wilbur through Saturday

By Phil Lebowitz

"OH GOD, what's it all about?" Esther Franz asked in the opening moments of Arthur Millers's The Price. Watching her throughout the play, I knew at the end that she had discovered the answer and was pleased. By this time, I had also discovered her answer, but I was not satisfied.

In the play, Esther (Betty Field) is married to Victor Franz (Michael Strong) who has been fending with his brother Walter (Sheppard Strudwick) for 28 years. Although the brothers' abilities and inclinations were similar, Victor became a policeman, Walter a successful surgeon. Both Victor and Walter seem unhappy and blame others for forcing them into their present situation. However, each is responsible for his own choice- a choice that had to be made and must be recognized. What Esther often says of herself is true of the two men, "I can never believe what I see before me."

Victor and Esther realize in the end that they are indeed happy. Their ululate success comes from the realization of life's complexity- the knowledge that rewards come in different forms and at different times. The performances of the three main characters depict this uneven nature of life. Michael Strong as Victor shapes his characterization to the events of the play. He balances between the over-confidence of a happily married policeman and the defensive anger of a middle-aged man who sees himself as a failure. As he slips from one phase to the other, he is complemented by Miss Field, who alternately admires her husband and pushes him to desire something more. Shepperd Strudwick, in this same manner, enters with the false confidence of an Academy Award nominee and leaves expressing the forceful anger of one who "should have won." Whenever he sees Walter at the point of losing his self-assurance. Strudwick looks at or rubs his hands- the surgeon's hands, the hands that have given him his material happiness. In this way, he shows that Walter refuses to admit that his hands have failed him. He expects his rewards in life to mirror his well-defined rewards as a surgeon.

THE SET by Boris Aropson is a physical representation of the complexities that the characters face. The attic setting forms a background of calibrate disorder. Just as Walter and Victor were not sure of the value of all of their experiences, no one is sure at first sight of the value of this mixture of elegant and tawdry furniture. Nevertheless, the price for the furniture and for experience is always constant according to the appraiser. Miller uses similar parallels between the set and the dialogue, and between the dialogue and the characters' actions to solidify the basic theme of his play. But these symbolic effects also point out the flaw in this work.

Drama is a unique form of literature in that it enables the author to have an emotional contact between his audience and his characters. Miller in effect, negates this power of the theatre by demanding that his audience focus so closely on his theme. I felt compelled throughout the play to try to discover the importance of each line and of each symbol. Esther's repeated comments on the meaning of the play, the symbols in the set, in the gestures, and in the speeches ("The price hasn't changed.") cries out to be noticed. The play did not allow me to become involved in the lives of the characters and to follow their actions as though they were mine. Instead, I was an observer, looking at a situation in which I had no part. I was the analyst sitting behind a two-way mirror, watching and interpreting the actions of group therapy participants. Miller conveyed his message, but bridled its effect. He fired a pistol and I saw a flag fly out from the muzzle saying "Bang!"

"There's a price people pay," Victor and Esther discover toward the end of the play. They had sacrificed some things to gain others. Miller gives up certain inherent advantages of the theater to stress his theme. However, it is possible to sacrifice too much or the wrong things. Walter did this and lost his happiness. Arthur Miller does this and loses his play.

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