"It's deeply moving, to me," says actor Charles Siebert, discussing Arthur Miller's 1968 play The Price, opening next weekend at the Cinnabar Theater. "Like almost all good dramas," he observes, "like Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this play is about family, and what we do to one another as family. It's about how we love one another and hate one another and drive each other crazy. It's deeply, deeply touching."
Siebert, an acclaimed New York theater and television actor (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Gingerbread Lady, Trapper John, M.D.) who retired to Sonoma County several years ago, admits that he wasn't very familiar with The Price when he was first cast in the Cinnabar production. Directed by Sheri Lee Miller, with a cast that also includes John Shillington, Samson Hood and Madeleine Ashe, the tightly written, intimately crafted story is set in the attic of a New York City brownstone, where two estranged brothers, a cop and a surgeon, meet to decide the fate of their late parents' furniture. Gregory Solomon (Siebert) is the Russian-Jewish antique dealer who enters the picture to appraise the furniture, and perhaps bring some wisdom and perspective to the brothers' 16-year-long feud.
"I knew two of the original Broadway cast," Siebert says. "Kate Read, who plays the wife of one of the brothers, played Big Mama in the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that I did on Broadway, when I played Gooper. And Pat Hingle, who played the cop in The Price, he was the original Gooper in Cat. When I did it, he came backstage and we talked. After that, we worked together a few times in L.A. He guested on Trapper John. He was a wonderful guy."
When told that early reviewers described The Price as one of Miller's most "theatrical" plays, Siebert laughs.
"I understand why they say that," he says. "His writing is usually so . . . severe. And there is so much talk. In The Price, a lot of the theatricality springs from that family dynamic I was talking about, and also from this character Solomon. He's a little bit of comic relief, but there's so much to him. That part is a gift to an actor. It's so clever and so interesting a part, taken in the context of the rest of the play.
"And it's no accident he's named Solomon," he adds. "The two brothers stand before him, and in a way, he does offer his judgment. That's pretty theatrical."
One of the things Siebert appreciates about The Price, and much of Arthur Miller's writing, is the absence of easy resolutions.
"The relationship between the two brothers is certainly not resolved," he says. "And that's sad, but it resonates with a lot of people, I suspect, in regards to their own families. Families are messy.
"One of the other things that's so terrific about this play," he continues, "is that neither character is really right or wrong. They each have legitimate points of view. They both have good reasons for feeling the way they do."
Miller, Siebert believes, is a highly judgmental writer. "You know how he feels about this characters," he explains. "You know which ones are right and which ones are wrong. But in this play, he doesn't judge these people. He just lets them struggle to understand themselves, to understand each other."
That, in a nutshell, is what makes Miller so exceptional an artist: his willingness to write about real life in ways that sidesteps an audience's programmed expectation that everything will resolve itself in a tidy, satisfying way. In our art, for the most part, we do want resolution. At the same time, we recognize that in real life, few things are resolved neatly in the end.
"I think that's one of the satisfactions of art," Siebert muses. "Art has to have a form and a shape, a destination of some sort, whereas life is aimless and crazy and never resolves anything to complete satisfaction. That's one of the interesting things about The Price. It doesn't exactly resolve. And yet, you're right, that is what we want from art. We want resolution. So will people leave this play devastated? I certainly hope so. "Because then they will have had a real experience. They will have gotten something extraordinary out of it."
Siebert, having acted in plays, television shows and movies, and having directed for a number of popular television shows (including Hercules and Xena), still finds that the greatest excitement, for an actor, comes from performing onstage in front of a live audience. He feels the same way about sitting in the audience.
"There is an enormous exhilaration," he says, "that comes from sitting in a room, hearing a couple of people getting up in front of us and saying these words that start to draw us in and engage us and finally tell us something about ourselves. That's why I go to the theater, to experience something, to experience a confirmation of something I believe, or a challenge to what I've assumed, something interesting, exciting, funny, sad, whatever.
"The idea that a bunch of people can get together in a room and watch a bunch of other people stand up and do this thing we call theater, it's amazing—because we buy it! We buy into it. Those are people pretending. Those guys aren't really brothers, and they aren't really working out their mutual angst—but we accept it completely."
Ultimately, he suggests, it's the language of theater that separates it from other art and entertainment forms.
"That's what theater is: language," Siebert says. "You don't get that from the movies or television. Playwrights like Miller, sometimes, and like Tennessee Williams, they can create poetry out of the most mundane conflicts. It's such a fascinating thing.
"It's such a remarkable collaboration," he concludes, "a collaboration between the audience and the artists. We in the audience agree to believe what the actors and the playwright and the director are presenting—even though everyone knows it's absolutely not happening at all.
"It's a fascinating game, and I love it!"