Chicago Theater Review: THE PRICE (Raven Theatre in Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on March 6, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


The Price (1968), in a solid revival at the Raven Theatre, demonstrates Arthur Miller at the top of his game – writing intense, eloquent, densely textured dramas about families under stress.  The production may have been marred a bit on opening night by some line-reading glitches, but the staging is strong enough to grip the viewer in the play’s engrossing web of domestic misunderstanding, recrimination, guilt, failed dreams, and the search for success in a materialist culture.

In the cluttered attic of a Manhattan brownstone slated for demolition, Victor Franz, a policeman who is considering retirement, meets an antique dealer to sell off the dusty contents which belonged to Victor’s dead parents.  He is joined by his wife Esther, a bitter woman exasperated by what she sees as her husband’s lack of ambition throughout their marriage. The dealer is an 89-year-old Russian Jew named Gregory Solomon (one of Miller’s few successful comic characters), a wily old man oozing folk wisdom.  Victor has been estranged from his brother Walter for the 16 years since their father died; when Walter arrives late, their reunion sets the stage for the emotional fireworks that dominate the second act.

Victor has carried a grudge against Walter for most of his adult life.  After their father lost his money during the Great Depression, Victor stayed with the shattered old man, giving up a promising career in science to become a policeman, a career he hated for 28 years.  Meanwhile, while Victor was tending to the father, Walter ventured out and became a world famous, and wealthy, surgeon.  Victor sees himself as the victim of Walter’s selfishness, sacrificing himself to the father Walter callously abandoned, earning the money and recognition Victor believed could have been his if he wasn’t chained to his father.

The two brothers go back and forth, their acrimony fed from the sidelines by Esther while Solomon tries to inject notes of moderation.  On the surface, Walter looks like the bad guy, but as layer after layer of revelation peels away, the conflict between the two brothers takes on a more ambiguous flavor.  Did Victor heroically devote himself to his failing father or did the old man really manipulate his son into a caregiver?  Deep inside himself, did Victor recognize the old man for the schemer he was and subconsciously elect to assume the mantle of a martyr?  Did Walter abandon his family responsibilities or did he escape from a loveless home before he was swallowed up like Victor?

The title of the play initially refers to the price the dealer was going to pay for the family furniture, but it really refers to the price we pay for making choices that end up mistakes, and the price we pay for accepting comforting illusions that may justify our failures and our blighted lives.

The Price is more concentrated than related Miller dramas like Death of a Salesman and All My Sons.  It takes place in real time in a single setting, often with only two characters on the stage.  But the writing is continuously engrossing as Victor and Walter lob recriminations and excuses back and forth, each trying to justify himself in the eyes of the other and occupy the moral high ground.  Much emotional blood is spilt, but it’s an open question whether either man has benefited from exposure to all the revelations, charges, and counter charges.

Chuck Spencer dominates the production as Victor, partly because the actor is on stage virtually the entire play, partly because Victor is the play’s most complex and sympathetic character, and partly because Spencer gives the evening’s most commanding performance.  JoAnn Montemurro (who also designed the costumes) provides one of her finest Raven performances as Esther, the wife eaten up with resentment and frustration.  Every Walter I’ve seen has been an aggressive, domineering type but Jon Steinhagen plays the man mainly simmering with regret, almost pleading for reconciliation with his brother until he reaches an emotional line he won’t cross; Steinhagen’s interpretation cedes the spotlight to Spencer’s more dynamic Victor but it’s a valid interpretation.  Leonard Kraft tries to evoke Gregory Solomon’s sly, endearing qualities, but his timing was sometimes off on opening night and his accent doesn’t quite convince.

Michael Menendian’s directing is unobtrusive and allows the power of Miller’s dialogue to flood the stage, especially when Victor and Walter stand virtually nose to nose, arguing the rightness of their positions as they rake over old grievances. Scenic designer Amanda Rozmiarek must have ransacked every second hand store in Chicago to assemble the wonderful jumble of furniture that fills the Raven stage. Richard Norwood designed the lighting, and Danielle Stack the sound.

photos by Dean LaPrairie

The Price

Raven Theatre in Chicago (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on April 14
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