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The Price
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Bruce Longworth
New Jewish Theatre
March 22, 2014

 

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller, Michael James Reed Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller, Michael James Reed
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”, or so the old saying goes.  In Arthur Miller’s 1968 play The Price, a middle-aged police officer is forced to confront not only the physical artifacts of his past, but his relationships as well, and a great deal of thought and conversation goes into the process of separating the trash from the treasure and determining what really matters, both materially and fundamentally.  As presented by the New Jewish Theatre, this classic play brings to life these questions of value and stability in a richly detailed, beautifully acted production.

The first few minutes of the play belong completely to Victor Franz (Michael James Reed), a New York City police officer on verge of retirement, as he peruses the dusty contents of the soon-to-be-demolished building where he grew up, along with his now-deceased parents and his brother Walter (Jerry Vogel), a successful surgeon with whom Victor hasn’t spoken in years.  As Victor wanders idly around and sorts through the mountains of furniture and knicknacks, he’s eventually joined by his wife Esther (Kelley Weber) and the enigmatic and endearing Gregory Solomon (Bobby Miller), an elderly semi-retired Russian-Jewish used furniture dealer with a colorful history who is here to appraise the contents of the attic and, Victor hopes, buy it and take it off Victor’s hands. This is more than just a collection of junk, however. Much of the furniture has sentimental value, but Victor doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with that, even though the cantankerous Solomon is taking his sweet time deciding on a price. When Walter eventually does show up unannounced, the brothers are forced to confront all their unspoken issues, and all the characters are presented with varying choices concerning what things, people and relationships really matter to them, as well as facing the cost of their own personal decisions and their effects on those around them.

This is a intense and highly atmospheric drama, well-punctuated by the glorious production values and strong staging.  Designed by Mark Wilson and appointed with painstaking detail, this attic set looks, feels, and sounds like a real place, reflecting both the late-1960’s era of the play’s setting as well as calling back to earlier times, most specifically the family’s affluent heyday in the 1920’s and the later drearier, gloomier reality of the Depression in the 1930’s.  Along with Michael Sullivan’s lighting design, Zoe Sullivan’s sound, and Jenny Smith’s props, this production takes us into the present and the past of this family as their story unfolds, and director Bruce Longworth’s staging and the strong acting of the superb cast brings this family’s world to life, as some of the furniture items–specifically a worn chair and an ornate, non-functioning harp–are almost given personalities as they are made to represent, respectively, the brothers’ jaded and detached father and their elegant and disappointed mother. Authentic 1920’s-era music, such as a musical “laughing record” and a routine by Vaudeville comedians Gallagher and Shean, is also used to great effect in achieving the feel of that bygone era and representing both nostalgia and regret.

The cast here is nothing short of priceless.  Longworth has assembled an immensely talented group of celebrated local actors, as fits this extremely well-written, highly detailed story.  As Victor, Reed exudes strength, weariness and, above all, an underlying sense of decency that motivates his reactions and revelations. He’s a man of missed chances, having given up a promising college career to join the police force and take care of his father, and Reed poignantly portrays his every regret, along with the remembrance of more hopeful times.  Vogel is an excellent contrast to Reed, portraying Walter with a real sense of regret but also a degree of smugness–he wants a relationship with his brother but he wants it on his own terms.  I was also particularly struck by the difficulty of Esther’s role, in that her motivations aren’t entirely clear at first, although Weber clearly portrays all of her complexity, in struggling between her deep sense of loyalty to her husband on one hand, to her near-idolization of Walter on the other hand, as well as the overarching sense of regret and yearning for a better life for herself and Victor.  The real catalyst for the action, however, and the most memorable performance in this incredibly strong cast, is Miller’s as the wise and world-weary Solomon, who provides a degree of moral direction and grounding to the other characters, especially Victor. Miller’s spot-on characterization, authentic-sounding accent, and sheer presence is apparent from his first appearance and throughout the course of the action, even when he’s bellowing at the other characters from offstage.  Even though we only get to hear a little bit about Solomon’s eventful personal history, that history is clearly embodied in Miller’s endearing performance.  There’s also a great sense of ensemble chemistry in this cast, as all of the players contribute to the energy of their cast-mates’ portrayals and the overall intensity of the the production.

Ultimately, as Arthur Miller asserts in this play, everything in life has a cost, whether monetary, emotional, relational, or a combination of these elements. The Price presents a story that seems to hang mostly on whether it’s more worth it to spend one’s life looking after others or to spend it looking after oneself, and the challenges that come from trying to figure out the balance. The play also challenges the audience to think about the emotional and nostalgic value of personal possessions and what they represent.  Although this show is set in a specific era and location, these are questions that transcend time and place. They’re questions we will all have to deal with at some point in our lives, for which this play serves as a stirring representation.  As for this remarkable production by the New Jewish Theatre, I would say it’s more than worth the ticket price and is makes for a thought and discussion-provoking evening well-spent.

Kelley Weber, Michael James reed, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Kelley Weber, Michael James Reed, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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