David Fox Worth Every Penny in The Price
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David Fox Worth Every Penny in The Price

A Canadian theatrical icon adds value to a classic American playwright's rarely produced work.

Michael Hanrahan and David Fox in The Price at Soulpepper. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Price
Young Centre for the Performing Arts
(55 Mill Street)
Selected dates until October 19

The Price is a play that, for all intents and purposes, should be extremely uncomfortable. It’s set in a cramped and musty attic that’s filled to the brim with dusty antique furniture and clothes untouched for 16 years. A man and wife seesaw from youthful flirtation to outright antagonism. And two brothers break a long-term silence and unleash decades of built-up bitterness as they negotiate the sale of their deceased father’s possessions, a man whose fortune was devastated by the market crash of 1929.

And, besides all that, it takes place over the course of a single real-time two-and-a-half-hour scene, intended to be performed without an intermission (though there is one in this production). As actor David Fox states in the program, it’s a play that takes a dramatist like Arthur Miller to pull off. It also takes an actor like David Fox.

When curtains rise on The Price, written in 1968 and one of Miller’s most rarely produced works, we meet Victor Franz (Michael Hanrahan), a 50-year-old police officer on the edge of retirement, and his wife Esther (Jane Spidell), who desperately wants him to cross that edge so they can both start living less frugally (which she becomes more vocal about after she’s had a few). On their way to a movie (a rare date for the couple), they arrange for an appraiser to come by and purchase Victor’s father’s earthly possessions, a household-full of expensive furniture, musical instruments, and clothes. It’s a move that Victor has put off for years because of bitterness between him and his brother Walter (Stuart Hughes), who became a wealthy and successful surgeon while Victor cared for their disgraced and ailing father. Of course, just as the bills are falling into Victor’s hands, Walter arrives, and the two brothers (too old for fisticuffs) duke it out using guilt and blame to decide who, actually, made the bigger sacrifice.

As one of the country’s most recognizable faces (Clive Pettibone in Road to Avonlea) and voices (Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin) on Canadian stages and screens, Fox makes his Soulpepper debut as wiry-yet-wise 89-year-old Jewish used-furniture salesman Gregory Solomon—a crucial role in terms of plot, theme, and structure of the play. While not directly implicated in the family drama that drives the script, he is the catalyst that brings the simmering feud to its head. His wit, candor, and unremitting ability to weather several personal, political, and financial booms and crashes expose the selfishness and immaturity of the other characters. And by placing Solomon mostly within the first act, meant almost explicitly for exposition and context, the audience has a comical yet endearing focus of attention. Victor may be the only character that never leaves the stage, but Solomon is arguably the most significant personality in the show.

And David Fox effortlessly commands the role, creating a complete and believable character against three rather flat archetypes—Walter, the pompous rich workaholic with a crumbling personal life; Victor, the guilt-ridden civil servant; and Esther, the shrill and childish drunk. Hanrahan does deliver an impressive marathon of a performance, with genuine moments of delight with Solomon’s banter and absolute, red-faced fury at Walter’s arrogance. Yet he, as the rock of the story, remains at a distance. Especially so when it comes to his relationship with Esther, whose convictions the audience can never really trust as true feelings and must always wonder if it’s just the drink talking.

The script is anything but plot heavy, as the audience enters the story 16 years after the conflict occurred. It’s text-based, linear, and naturally paced, which makes for a lofty two-and-a-half hours. And Diana’s Leblanc’s direction is in no rush with this style of script, the drama unfolding sometimes at a snail’s pace. But that’s never the case when Solomon is on stage. Fox is uncanny at making long, silent moments utterly captivating—whether he’s in a drawn-out coughing fit, picking up every single candlestick or lamp on top of a dresser, or cracking, peeling, and eating a hard-boiled egg. Even in the second act, which he spends mostly offstage in the attic’s bedroom, we found ourselves watching the curtain, waiting for his head to peek around again.

Much like the Franz’s attic of memorabilia of times past, The Price has some moments of humour, wit, and depth that are diamonds in the rough. And, ultimately, it’s David Fox who delivers a truly priceless performance.