The Proskys: Worth the Price of Admission... and More
By Gary Tischler
This is a theater story. Some things could only have happened in a theater, which is not to say that what happens on stage is anything less than real. Things happen, and they happen over and over again, pretty much the same way, except that everything is always different too. Theater folk go to sleep and wake up, and have lunch, and go to work and play their roles, big and small. This happens almost every day and night, except Mondays.
And then, there was the opening night of Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at Theater J in the Washington Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater on a Wednesday. That was a different sort of day and night.
That afternoon, actor Robert Prosky was walking in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where he lives when he tripped and fell. He cut his lip, got a black eye, needed a band aid over his eye and suffered a broken rib.
That night there was a full house which included critics, long-time friends, Washington actors, Theater J subscribers, and Prosky’s wife Ida, who was understandably worried. All of them had come in anticipation of seeing Prosky put on the clothes of the nearly-90 Jewish furniture dealer Gregory Solomon and perform in Miller’s powerful play with his two sons Andrew and John playing the contentious Franz brothers.
Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth came on to make his usual introductory comments, but also added that “one of our cast members fell today”.
And this way the play began with a special aura, a special tension and emotion beyond that which already existed.
You need to know only one or two things for now. Fifteen minutes or so, maybe later, into the play, Gregory Solomon appeared out of the darkness of a side entrance and shambled up a small set of steps leading to the set.
The second thing is that Prosky, always, except at the end, in the company of one or the other of his sons, gave a memorable, out-of-the-ballpark performance. In the beginning this was a story about a father and two of his sons, the Proskys, actors all. And like the play, it resonates with the life of the theater, and with life its own self.
The last time I sat down with Robert Prosky, we were at his home on Capitol Hill, 14 years ago. He had a full white beard, grown for the part of Solomon in an Arena Stage production of “The Price” opposite Stanley Anderson.
Fourteen years later, we talked again. He was sitting in the library at the Jewish Community Center on 16th Street. The beard was a stubble this time, but it was for the same part.
He was Gregory Solomon again, the Jewish furniture dealer at the center of a family drama in Arthur Miller’s deeply engrossing 1967 play “The Price,” in which two brothers square off over long and deeply held wounds and betrayals while they sell off their late parents’ last remaining furniture and belongings.
Same Solomon – and then again not – but different family, different brothers.
Prosky is playing Solomon again, but this time the parts of the two brothers are being played by his sons, John and Andrew. We sat and talked, Robert, John and Andy, in the audience seats the day before opening night, facing the set rich in bric-a-brac. Prosky, in a wind-breaker, stretched his legs. He is 77 now, and creeping up on the age of his character, which is stated as 89.
“It’s great working with my boys,” he says, stretching out in the audience seats in the Aaron and Cecile Goldman Theater at the JCC. “They can drive me around town. Not that I can’t drive. But it’s a nice thing.”
Andrew – he’s an Andy in person if there ever was one – is the youngest of three Prosky sons. He carries himself big and boisterous, a strider who’s immensely affable, while John, smaller in size, with less hair, is the quick, silky, quieter guy, not so directly vocal, but armed with comebacks. If the two were fighters, Andy would be a roundhouser, and John would be a bobber and weaver, a dancer. As it is, they both turned out to be actors.
“I’ve always known they were good actors, the both of them,” he says. “But with this, we’ve done this in three different places now. I can tell you I discovered they’re REALLY good.”
When you’re sharing the stage with an actor the quality of their father, it’s paramount that you stay on your toes. Asked if they ever coasted through a performance, Andrew Prosky rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding? Not with HIM on the stage. He wouldn’t let you, believe me.”
They’re an interesting trio, sitting there in the chairs, facing the artfully designed set of the play, with its bulky furniture, its memory stuff, and skylight, the weathered harp, the soft sunken chairs, the solid-wood dining room table. They don’t look alike; Prosky is built low to the ground even when slouching like this. Andrew has a bristling mustache and military butch haircut of a cop. John has fewer edges, he’s thinner than either man, probably taking after his mother.
“My mother is our rock,” John says. “She is the perfect wife for an actor and a great mother who doesn’t let you get away with things. What she does and has always done is to make it possible to do what we do.” There is another son, Stephan, a scientist, who now teaches visual arts at Georgetown University.
Watching them banter, you see a man and his two sons, enjoying each other’s company as of old. It’s quick talk, going every which way, formality out the window, filled with memory, stories, a laugh here, a compliment there, a reminiscence there. “Did you bring the baby pictures?” Andy asks his father.
“This family, in this play, that’s a dysfunctional family,” Robert Prosky says. “The brothers, they’re Cain and Abel, it’s an old story. Solomon sees what’s happening, he tries to head them off, offers healing. But he’s energized by the task at hand, the tensions, even. He likes to talk, to find out things.”
“It’s hard,” John says. “I mean, Andy and I, we get along, we’re really close. The whole family is. But compared to this, well, we had to really reach to get into the parts.” We didn’t fight much when we were kids. I hero-worshipped John,” Andrew says.
They first shared the stage with their father in a play about young Tom Edison and Teddy Roosevelt when they were young boys. This production of “The Price” was originally performed at the Cape May Stage and then later at the Walnut Street Playhouse in Philadelphia, where Prosky grew up.
The sons grew up in Washington, both attending Gonzaga High School. Both have carved out successful careers in acting, in theater, television and films. Both know a little something about family. Andy has a 14-year-old son named Kyle “who lives with his mother,” and John has a four-year-old son named Joseph Kai. He is married to actress Kimiko Gelman.
Robert Prosky himself has had a storied career in some ways. Many of his roles at Arena are legendary for staying in the mind and memory – Brecht’s “Galileo,” Willy Loman, (Miller himself said he was one of the top three Willys, with Lee J Cobb and George C Scott), grandpa in “You Can’t Take It With You,” the stage manager in “Our Town,” a play which Arena took to Moscow; “Glengarry Glenross.” So many lines cross – his great triumph “Death of a Salesman” will be performed at Arena as part of the current Miller festival, and another “A View From the Bridge” also. “Yeah, but people really liked him in “Gremlins II,” Andy says. That was the movie in which he played a late night, Dracula-caped horror movie host. Not to mention his priest in “Rudy,” the paean to all things Notre Dame. Not to mention the cop on “Hill Street Blues.” “The truth is that I went into movies so that I could make a little money,” he has said.
“This play, let me tell you, it stays with you a while, you can’t just drop it at the end,” John said.
“This is the only version of “The Price” as far as we know, right, that real brothers have played the part of the brothers,” they tell you. And it’s true, and that’s what makes it, on opening night, even more affecting.
Sitting in the audience, knowing what you know, you wonder about them, what part of them are the Franz brothers, what part concerned sons as the play proceeds...
You wouldn’t know anything was amiss. Andrew’s Victor Franz, the policeman brother who cared for his father, paralyzed by the depression, is all edges, he’s holding so much inside that it’s almost impossible to touch him. John, who plays Walter Franz, the successful doctor son, is more fluid, he moves smoothly. They spend large amounts of time, especially in the second act, without Solomon on the stage, and they hold it solidly in their fists, along with the Leisa Mather as the frustrated wife of Victor.
And Solomon comes out one last time. He says his words, sits in a chair in the darkness and laughs. And the audience, his friends, their friends, family, neighbors, scribes, and actors, visibly moved, rise as one.
Arthur Miller once wrote: “The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.”
There are you are. That’s “The Price”.