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Role Playing: Chuck Spencer flashes a badge of moral courage in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price’

Submitted by on Apr 4, 2012 – 5:55 pm

Interview: The veteran Chicago actor portrays a conflicted cop who must confront his wealthy brother and their complicated past at Raven Theatre, through April 14.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Chuck Spencer relishes poking through the piled clutter during his first long, solitary, silent minutes on stage at the beginning of Arthur Miller’s play “The Price,” at Raven Theatre.

Every night, as Victor Franz, the 50-year-old cop who grew up in this now-empty and condemned house, Spencer gets to wing it with some wordless improv, poking around the dusty heap as he waits for the estate buyer to show up. The dressers, tables, chairs and assorted personal items recall the best of times and the worst of times.

“At first it terrified me,” says Spencer, an Iowa native active on the Chicago theater scene since 1985. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here? What is this? But now I really enjoy it. It’s like Disneyland for an actor, a place to just play. I think silence is so interesting. We learn about Victor in the first couple of minutes.”

Spencer’s sympathetic, nuanced and contained performance energizes Raven’s production of this classic tale of sibling rivalry and moral choice.

“To Victor, all this clutter means a life lived, both sad and joyful. That room – Arthur Miller says it should look like a 10-room mansion crammed into one – was a lot of things to Victor. He was joyful as a child there, and it was difficult as an adult living with his father during a time when they were both depressed.”

The setup of “The Price” is that Victor, a police officer nearing retirement, is meeting his estranged older brother Walter, a very successful surgeon, and the estate buyer called Gregory Solomon to dispose of all this stuff left by their recently deceased father. Also on hand is Victor’s wife. Walter doesn’t show up until near the end of Act 1, and the wife exits on an errand, leaving Victor, impatient and uncomfortable, to deal with the elderly Solomon (Leonard Kraft), a man of expansive spirit who is by nature in no hurry and insists that some personal acquaintanceship should precede business.

While the overt issue of the play’s title is the price Solomon is willing to pay for all this fine junk, the richly metaphorical matter is the price each of the brothers has paid for his own choices in life: Victor, at least as scientifically gifted as his brother, gave up college to care for his destitute father, who lost his considerable fortune in the stock market crash of ’29; and Walter walked out, never looked back and scored big – allowing that his marriage has failed and that he endured a nervous breakdown.

Victor and Walter (Jon Steinhagen), who haven’t spoken in 16 years, will have their showdown. But first the anxious cop has to deal with this annoyingly mellow estate buyer.

“Victor keeps pushing him because it’s so painful for him being here,” says Spencer. “He’s like the student who writes an essay the night before it’s due. He just wants to get it out of the way. There’s so much sadness in this room where he went through all this crap with his father. Solomon keeps saying they should get to know each other, and Victor is literally telling him no, I don’t want to get to know you. What’s your price for this stuff?

“What I think is happening is that Arthur Miller is attempting to show the old world values in contrast to our modern hurried lives.  We’re always in a hurry, and Victor represents that. Maybe we should take a deep breath. Miller is so brilliant and observant. He also stands in between these two worlds, writing as a young man from pre-World War II and as one of the first observers of the consumer culture. Here’s Victor repeatedly telling Solomon, ‘I don’t have time for you.’ We can see the father transference going on.”

Just before Victor’s wife returns and his famous, wealthy brother finally shows up, the cop accepts Solomon’s offer of $1,100 for the whole works. Neither wife nor brother thinks much of that deal, and so begins a brotherly reunion that evolves from awkward greeting to skirmishing to bare-knuckles hostility. It is ugly and it is painful, an intense debate marked by gains and retreats, very much like a courtroom drama.

“This is a play about viewpoints,” says Spencer. “The debate boils down to: Do we help our fellow man or do we look out for No. 1? Miller presents valid arguments for both sides. It’s interesting that we hear so much about Walter from other people in the first act, and you think, what a jerk. Then here comes Walter with his point of view and it’s pretty convincing. Both brothers have difficulty with the truth.”

Walter says their father played Victor for a sap, causing him to throw away his future for the sake of a man who perhaps didn’t really need his constant help.

“But Victor has a strong moral center,” says Spencer. “He always wants to do the right thing, even if it’s sometimes to his own detriment. He didn’t want Dad to end up with no one. He was desperately trying to save his father from financial ruin, from starvation. Victor explains this to his wife. The man couldn’t believe in anybody any more, and that was unbearable to Victor. Unbearable is a strong word.”

Not the least challenging aspect of playing Victor was the novel assignment of portraying a cop, says Spencer.

“I began to observe police officers,” he says. “To capture a cop’s demeanor means you don’t trust anybody. There’s always this wariness, the watchful eye.”

The strong, silent side of the constabulary was a real hurdle, says Spencer, admitting that director Michael Menendian had to rein him in.

“I’m not really a tough guy. I tend to get really emotional and flail about. Victor is stoic, afraid to show emotion. Michael would say, ‘OK, get rid of that’ – the tears over mom. He got me to bring it all inside, and he was right.  The more I could hold the emotion in, the more intense the internal conflict would be.”

Then there was the matter of posture. Spencer says the director was constantly reminding him to stand up straight.

“Michael kept telling me, ‘You’re a cop. Stick your chest out.’”

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Chuck Spencer. Descending from above: Victor Franz (Chuck Spencer) explores the dusty objects of  his family history. (Production photos by Dean LaPrairie)

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