Theatre review: Humanity comes through in thoughtful 'The Price'

For the News-DemocratMarch 25, 2014 

A dynamic acting master class is on view in Arthur Miller's powerful dysfunctional family drama "The Price," now playing at the New Jewish Theatre.

Written in 1968, this later Miller play still involves his familiar dark exploration of the American Dream and resulting moral dilemmas. It focuses on two estranged brothers who meet one afternoon to sell their dad's belongings, the wily appraiser who offers them a deal, and the desperate wife of one sibling.

In carefully disciplined, modulated performances, Michael James Reed and Jerry Vogel are pitch-perfect as the at-odds middle-aged brothers Victor and Walter Franz. Bobby Miller amusingly plays older extremely well as the colorful cagey codger Gregory Solomon and Kelley Weber is strong as the outspoken, frustrated Esther.

Working earnestly with Miller's intense dialogue, they effortlessly volley back and forth with the ease and skill of world-class tennis players in a Grand Slam championship game.

They are shrewdly guided by director Bruce Longsworth, who taps into the show's complex emotions, and contrasts the characters in ways that evoke sympathies for all. Miller is there for comic relief, and he doles out wit and charm without chewing up too much scenery.

An air of regret hangs heavy in the old brownstone attic the boys grew up in -- family furniture forlornly piled high. It was a place where dreams once flourished, but then were dashed during the Depression. Their father, who lost everything in the 1929 crash and was never the same after that, died 16 years ago, but dispensing of possessions must happen now because the building is going to be torn down.

Victor, a 50-year-old city policeman considering retirement, gives in to nostalgic memories after arrival -- his fencing gear, their mother's harp, a gramophone. An almost 90-year-old dealer comes by to survey the personal property. He freely dispenses wise nuggets and life lessons. Victor's wife is eager to receive financial compensation for a life not well-lived.

Walter, a successful doctor, shows up, and their hostilities surface -- they haven't spoken in years, but the surgeon attempts to make amends, or is it manipulation?

Throughout the tense second act, "shoulda woulda coulda" accusations, explanations and excuses surface. Victor, who sacrificed college and the hopes of a career in science, blames his brother for the road not taken. And the arrogant doctor's selfish decisions seem to have played a part, but he's not necessarily the bad guy we pictured.

As they delve into dissecting their decisions, their family history, and the price that had to be paid, the reality isn't so black-and-white. The brilliance of Miller's script is how our allegiances change as characters reveal their version of what really happened.

Miller was 14 when his father -- a Polish Jewish immigrant who ran a coat factory -- lost it all in the stock market crash, and plunged from affluence to working menial jobs to earn money for his education. That obviously profoundly affected him, and influenced his plays.

His recurring themes of integrity, society's obligations, loyalty and pride re-open old wounds in "The Price." Yet, the humanity comes through in this thoughtful, deliberate performance.

The world-weary Victor, a decent man not willing to change his value system, has thought of himself as a victim for years, while the ambitious Walter, who appeared to have it easier, focused on his ticket to a better life, and suffered the consequences. Can they accept the past and move on, or do those choices continue to define them?

This admirable work will no doubt prompt discussions, bringing to the forefront how people's lives were affected, even ruined, by the national economic crisis, and its ripple effect for years to come. Grandparents and parents made decisions out of fear. Victor says to survive, "We do what we have to do."

The production values are first-rate, with a meticulous vintage set design by Mark Wilson and effective lighting by Michael Sullivan.

At a glance

What: "The Price"

When: through April 16

Where: New Jewish Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur, Mo.

Tickets: 314-442-3283; www.newjewishtheatre.org

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