There are American playwrights who were raised during the Great Depression, and there are American playwrights raised after that economic calamity had given way to an era of booming prosperity.
The divide between the two is an important one, and nowhere more so than in the family dramas of the late Arthur Miller. Though his career spanned six decades, and plays and films with a variety of settings and subjects, you could boil the essence of his morally charged canon down to this: What is the price one pays for American failure and American success, and for not owning up to one’s past?
Such transactions are addressed bluntly in MIller’s 1968 drama “The Price,” and in a superior production (like the current one staged by Victor Pappas at ACT Theatre) they come across powerfully and meaningfully.
Everyone in “The Price” is concerned with the cost, literal and figurative, of a life whiplashed by desire and loss — economic and emotional. These are primal expenses, but here they are specifically American.
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Middle-aged New York policeman Victor Franz (Charles Leggett) wants to know what a Manhattan brownstone attic full of his late parents’ possessions will fetch from a wily, chatty old Russian-Jewish furniture dealer, Gregory Solomon (Peter Silbert).
But as they bargain, Victor must confront what it cost to sacrifice his own dreams to care for his late father (who lost a fortune and more in the 1929 financial crash).
Victor’s loving, but discontented wife Esther (Anne Allgood) needs to know if the dealer’s offer will help turn around a marriage grown stale from years of working-class penny-pinching and material longing.
Walter Franz (Peter Lohnes), a prosperous physician, calculates the tariff for losing the love of his long-estranged brother Victor — and the price of winning it back.
As the (overtly biblical) Solomon spends Act 1 shrewdly sizing up the elegant old furniture and the wary Victor’s situation, his entertaining stream of advice and anecdotes from his past often deal with the value of relationships.
But it is not until Walter arrives that the full impact of the Depression on the once-wealthy Franz family’s vision of itself grows blindingly clear. Miller explores the implications of what money can do for you and deprive you of, what it can buy and be blamed for. And that calculus is bleak yet bracing.
Miller described “The Price” as a quartet. And without the right four-member cast, it can sag under the weight of Miller’s verbosity and a pileup of psychoanalytical revelations.
But ACT delivers the goods. In the showiest role, Silbert returns to ACT (after many years performing in Milwaukee) with an expertly textured and accented portrayal. His Solomon is a sly and profound old fox, who may or may not be lowballing the Franzes, but who comprehends fully their long-simmering torments.
Leggett is the perfect counterweight as the phlegmatic Victor. After choking back his resentment for decades, he learns of a family betrayal that shaped his destiny — and reacts with a kind of primitive spasm of wondrous rage.
But Leggett can also express with stillness as much as Silbert achieves with words. The long arc of his silence, after being asked a big question he can’t answer, is shattering.
In the wispier role of Esther, Allgood avoids alcoholic clichés and evokes both chronic disappointment and loyalty. And Lohnes’ well-heeled Walter, the most schematic character, is an egotist who isn’t entirely hateful.
Pappas thoughtfully makes the in-the-round Allen Theatre staging work. But what the configuration of Robert Dahlstrom’s set, packed with heavily symbolic furnishings, gains in intimacy, it sometimes lacks in centralized focus.
All and all, however, that doesn’t discount the value of this very fine production.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org