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Arthur Millerís 1968 drama The Price touches many universals: the relationship between brothers, the inescapable taints of the past, and the difficulties of the ties that bind men and women. But most of all, itís an evening of American history, an illustration of the effects of the Depression on everyone who lived in those times. Miller was 14 when his fatherís business failed, and one canít help perceiving the trajectory of his familyís downfall in the plight of the playís Franz brothers.
The Price is set in 1965. Victor, a New York cop, has finally decided to sell off his late fatherís household. He and his wife, Esther, come to the shabby, junk-furniture-filled apartment of his childhood to meet with Gregory Solomon, an 89-year-old aphorism-spouting used-furniture dealer. Victorís younger brother, Walter, a successful surgeon, also turns up, though the brothers havenít spoken for 16 years. Their father, a successful businessman, lost his money in the Depression and never regained his sense of self-worth. Victor went to work as a cop to support him while Walter escaped to medical school and a successful practice. Since Miller is a consummate observer of human nature, the polar blacks and whites of the good-kid/bad-kid fable turn out to have many shades of gray.
To be sure, few people today are writing plays like this one, with its gritty, realistic ambiance and Freudian-tinged confrontations. A dramatist with a knack for letting a character hide his true feelings beneath the dialogue (up to a point), Miller compresses this showdown between brothers into a time span of only a few hours to ratchet up the tension. Heís also a commentator on the national obsession with money: getting it, keeping it, using it to enhance oneís self-esteem. Itís a theme that connects many of his characters, from the Kellers of All My Sons to the Lomans to Walter, Victor, and Esther Franz.
Miller is likewise an expert on the contradictions of the 20th-century immigrant experience as it collided with the American Dream. But under the direction of Charles Towers, this production misses the specific mark of the playwrightís concerns. Although itís true that all immigrants to a new land have the goal of finding better lives for their children, the Franz familyís experience stems from Millerís own as a first-generation American child of Jewish immigrants who settled in New York. Thereís no mistaking Millerís geographic and sociological boundaries in the charactersí assumptions about money as power, the rigid hierarchy of rungs up the ladder of success, and the relative value of tangible goods versus the richer gift of love.
Towers has miscast Christopher McHale as Victor and Monique Fowler as Esther. McHale is a large, sandy-haired man with a blustering manner and a victim-like way of accepting the emotional body blows heís dealt rather than hitting back with the bobbing and weaving denials Miller has written for him. He has no edge of deceit, and neither is he a brooder ó a trait that must be evident in the man. Thereís no sense of familiarity between McHaleís Victor and Fowlerís Esther, none of the easy comfort, despite mutual antagonisms, of a couple whoíve been married nearly 30 years. And Fowler substitutes whining for the desperation that stems from Estherís disappointment in her life and her need to assign blame for it.
McHale also has little affinity with W.T. Martin as a more convincing Walter, a man who is always protecting himself by looking for an excuse or a way out of being judged. Walter has suffered, and he wants to make amends, but in the end, he reverts to the disclaimers that have shielded him. McHale and the tightly wired Martin do not resemble each other in any physical or psychological way, and the director has failed to help them find gestures or speech mannerisms that might identify them as brothers. David Rogers is amusing as Gregory Solomon, who approaches the opportunity to make a deal as if it were a life-saving blood transfusion.
Bill Clarke has designed an effective three-story metaphor of a set thatís filled with furniture piled everywhere, rugs rolled up at the corners and chairs hanging from the rafters near a skylight, as if to suggest the detritus of a disorderly past that must be dusted off, examined in the light, and gotten rid of before the atmosphere can be healthy again. Miller is too cautious to suggest a happy ending, as the characters settle back into their accustomed behaviors. But itís clear that lessons have been learned about what wounds can be healed and what scars must be carried to the grave.
Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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