HELPER— If you have never been to Helper Utah and never thought you might have a reason to go, I’m here to tell you that things have changed. Helper has been holding out on us.
Arthur Miller’s The Price is the final offering in The Other Side Players debut season at The Rio Theatre in Helper. The Rio was once a frontier opera house, and has been beautifully renovated to modern standards while still retaining it’s vintage charm. This surprisingly spacious yet intimate venue proved the perfect fit for Miller’s one room drama.
The stage is a partial thrust proscenium, and upon entering the theatre we are immediately intrigued and fascinated by the mountains of antique furnishings and clutter filling nearly every inch of the stage and almost spilling out into the audience. Set and lighting designer Grady McEvoy does a masterful job creating the storage attic of a Manhattan brownstone where the play’s action is set. The attention to detail is phenomenal and pulls the audience into the world of the play right from the get-go.
Enter Victor Franz (played by Morgan Lund), a cop near the end of a 28 year career who has come to sell off the remains of his deceased parent’s estate. As he lifts the dust covers from an ornate living room set, a long silent harp, and a forgotten fencing mask and foil, we begin to get a sense of the enormous history contained in this room. Director Justin Ivie has allowed his actors a wonderful amount of freedom in connecting with the space, and has created a careful orchestration of symbolism with the many storied objects on stage. The ghost of Victor’s father was a looming presence in the cushy armchair left vacant for him, as was the specter of his mother seated next to the harp.
Victor is interrupted in his recollections by Ester, his wife, played by the marvelously capable Paula Duesing. She appears in this production under special contract with the Actors Equity Union, of which she is a member. Duesing brings a warmth and immediacy to the stage that is utterly charming and convincing.
Arriving in a fit of coughs and wheezing is Gregory Solomon, an 89-year-old jewish appraiser played by Ron Frederickson. In a play that is driven by strong character work, Frederickson delivers a stand out performance. His Solomon is wonderfully quirky without ever being over the top; and his empathetic portrayal of the odd man out was both comic and touching.
Last, but not least, to arrive on the scene is Walter Franz: Victor’s estranged brother whom he has not heard from in 16 years. This is where things get complicated. Actor Cory Ewan plays Walter very earnestly and kindly. We can’t help but feel for him as he describes the serious difficulties he’s endured during their time apart. At the same time, Ewan accomplishes a great feat of nuance and ambiguity as Walter attempts to rationalize and defend his past.
As with all great Miller plays, The Price has plenty of turns up it’s sleeve; and as the discoveries and realizations mount, we’re pulled deeper and deeper into the complexities of an uncertain past, and an even more tenuous present. This production does a nice job handling each of these detailed moments, and is a shining example of the kind of high caliber production value that can be accomplished outside of the larger theatres in Utah.
The second act of the play is pure firepower. Everything comes to a head, and we’re treated to some of the more sublimely powerful stage moments this reviewer has seen in a long time. Lund delivers a captivating performance throughout the play, but is really given the chance to knock the dramatic moments out of the park during the second half. Lund is at times like a prowling lion, and at other times like a cornered prey standing his ground. He has the sort of gravitas that smolders and sparks even when he’s standing still. Lund, also appearing courtesy of Actor’s Equity, is a seasoned professional at the top of his game in this role.
If you have never been to Helper, now is the time to plan your first visit. You would be hard pressed to find a better production anywhere in the state of Utah. If Morgan Lund and The Other Side Players can continue to produce works of this caliber, The Rio Theatre will very soon be putting Helper back on the map.