by Arthur Miller
Directed by Michael Carleton
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Rarely will you see such effortless, natural acting as in Theater J’s The Price, which draws you in and ambushes you with profound questions. What’s the cost of our choices? How can you put a price on the past? The confrontation with Arthur Miller’s uncomfortable insights into the lives of ordinary people merit deeply-realized acting and the Prosky team deliver some priceless moments that easily hit the peaks and dips in this rich tapestry of a play.
These actors already know each other well. All four come with impressive professional credits. DC actor, Robert Prosky recaps an award-winning performance as Solomon, the antiques dealer, from Arena Stage’s 1994 production. Now under the crisp direction of Michael Carleton, Prosky’s two sons, Andrew and John, play the two brothers, one a policeman, the other a doctor, who haven’t spoken to each other for sixteen years.
The two sons have gathered at the home of their youth to sell off the family’s possessions. We are in the attic of a once-opulent 1930’s New York City townhouse, about to be demolished. The Franz legacies collected over a lifetime are piled high. Stacked chairs on ornately carved serving tables, an overstuffed arm chair where the ailing patriarch once sat, books and trunks are crammed onto Robert Kramer’s open-but- detailed stage set, topped with a skylight. When Victor, the cop, (Andrew Prosky), enters and plucks the strings of his mother’s harp, “grandpa’s wedding present,” positioned down stage left, that harp takes on a life of its own. Later, when it’s clear no one wants the musical instrument except a furniture dealer, that harp represents the inexpressible: Victor, who says he cannot recall his mother’s face, chokes up every time he moves near her harp. Even though the good, honest cop will let the family heirloom go, he still cares. To the amusement of his loyal wife Esther (Leisa Mather), Victor finds relief in the antique Victrola player and its recording of hysterical, contagious laughter. Again, it’s the little moments in this sensitively acted production that count. Replaying the record at the end frames the play and suggests the absurdity of life itself.
Back to Act I. In a few terse exchanges with his wife, we learn that Victor resents his surgeon brother Walter (John Prosky). Victor sacrificed college and a research career to take care of his dad, wiped out financially in the Great Depression. Then he joined the police force to be useful and to secure a pension. The successful Walter stayed away.
In comes Solomon, the furniture dealer. Robert Prosky delivers Solomon’s wisdom like a roguish Old Testament King Solomon, on call to divide the family treasures. His performance keeps us off-guard and on the edge of our seats. Whether it’s a fair deal or not doesn’t seem to be the point. There’s the reality of the marketplace. The furniture is too big for modern apartments. Prosky’s Solomon is the deft but clownish pick-pocket, innocuously poking here and there for an opening to cinch the deal. But more importantly, he’s the compassionate umpire whose common sense prevents the possibility of future loss through an IRS investigation. (Remember: Miller knew well the power of government interference during the McCarthy era.) For who can deny the lure of Walter’s offer to donate the entire attic to the Salvation Army for a 50% tax deduction under his upscale income to give Victor thousands more than Solomon’s meager offer. After all, Victor could use a bigger cash payout to enhance a police officer’s retirement.
In a verbal duel. Victor and Walter slice away layers of misperceptions. The contrast in the brothers’ characters is clearly drawn. Although Victor was the brighter student, he dodged the competitive arena, supposedly for economic reasons, whereas Walter doggedly worked at his dream of completing medical school. But now, trapped by his profession, Walter reveals “You specialize in something until one day you find it is specializing in you.” His hard-won success has netted him a nervous breakdown, a divorce and lifestyle change.
To help us fully understand this dysfunctional family, Miller follows the money to deeper past wounds and familial manipulation. Actor John Prosky fills Walter’s hard-hitting Act Two monologues with withering wrath that momentarily shatters Victor’s belief in his father and our view of this family. Surprisingly, it’s Walter who leaves exposed and humiliated. There has to be a reason he leaves his classy, expensive coat in the attic after an exit that can only suggest he’s peeled to the core. There are no clear answers to what choices should have been made and that’s the beautiful challenge of this play.
What you have to do to survive can transform the American Dream into a nightmare. And that’s the streak of puritanical judgment in Miller, the trait of a New Englander who mistrusts material success and dangles the transgressors over the flames of hell. Still, there’s the contradiction: At the mercy of the work ethic, his characters have to keep climbing to save themselves from the shame of existing in America without money.
In The Price, as brilliantly enacted here, both brothers attain heroic stature through Esther’s devotion to Victor. Her one-liners, like “What is life all about anyway?” or “We are dying. That’s what’s true!” resound like echoes from a Greek chorus. Although driven by her fallen dreams to goad Victor in the beginning, by the end of the day, she accepts him for what he is and stands by her man. And Leisa Mather gives us a stunning portrait that matches the moving performances of her fellow actors.
Running Time: 2:20 with one 15-minute intermission.
When: Continues until May 18; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 3:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Special Noon Matinees: Wednesday, April 2; Wednesday, April 16, and Friday, April 4.
Where: Theater J, the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center at 1529 16th Street N.W., 4 blocks east of Dupont Circle, Washington D.C. 20036.
Tickets: $15-$50. For Box Office Tickets, call (800) 494-TIXS or go to http://www.boxofficetickets.com/
Click here to hear our podcasts with Robert Prosky and the cast of The Price.