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Arthur Miller’s The Price, on the few occasions it’s staged at all, tends to draw attention to its perceived deficiencies. It’s too long. Two of the four characters are superfluous, and one of the important ones doesn’t show up until the second half. It veers confusingly from absurdist farce to moral reckoning. Miller’s style—hard-talking, emotionally naked—was already passé by the time it came out, in 1968. For these reasons, The Price isn’t usually the first choice for a theater company doing a Miller revival, so seeing any production of it is a rare treat. A great production, such as Olney Theatre’s, is even rarer.
The drama centers on two brothers, Victor and Walter, who are ostensibly selling off their deceased father’s belongings while really navigating years of unspoken resentment. Both were good students with promising futures, but only one of them made it big: Walter left home and became a successful doctor, while Victor quit school to take care of their father (who was broken by the 1929 crash) and then became a cop. The two haven’t seen each other in years. When Walter saunters in, seeking not his half of the inheritance but absolution from Victor, his brother, understandably, has a few feelings he wants to air out first.
The skill of Olney’s cast in conveying the slipperiness of the past that produced these feelings is what makes it all work. Charlie Kevin’s Victor, the world-weary cop, is immediately sympathetic, while Sean Haberle’s Walter comes in glad-handing with the shark’s grin and nervous energy of a rich man hoping to buy his way into heaven. That we root for Victor is a given; that we manage to see things from Walter’s perspective is a testament to Haberle’s acting chops. Yet the character most crucial to this shift in perspective is the one the audience never sees: their father. His story of financial ruin makes The Price not just a family drama, but a brutal commentary on the toll—both material and psychological—that a boom-bust economy can take on multiple generations.
The two ancillary characters—Victor’s wife Esther and the furniture trader Solomon, to whom Victor is selling off his father’s possessions—exist primarily to flesh out Victor. Esther’s despair over missed opportunities contrasts with Victor’s contempt for the rat race; Solomon’s silver tongue contrasts with Victor’s straight shooting. So it’s most impressive to see Valerie Leonard and Conrad Feininger make both characters feel totally necessary. Leonard has perhaps the toughest job, as Esther is an almost contemptible figure, brow-beating her husband (she’s sometimes intimated to be an alcoholic) before being shushed out of the negotiations by the men. Feininger provides that rarest of things in a Miller play: comic relief (“I’ve never heard of a Jewish acrobat.” “What, you never heard of Jacob? He wrestled with an angel!”). Solomon is the obvious stand-in for Miller, with his three (or was it four?) wives (Solomon doesn’t say if one of them was Marilyn Monroe). The characters are further distinguished by their accents, from Victor’s Bugs Bunny Brooklyn to Esther’s faintly Roosevelt UES to the Yiddish of Solomon’s Russian Jewish émigré, the contribution of Olney’s dialect coach, Lynn Watson.
Aside from Olney’s in-the-round staging at its Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, it’s a pretty by-the-book production, staged in a cramped attic with tables and wardrobes jumbled together and chairs hanging perilously from the rafters. Director Michael Bloom doesn’t put any contemporary spin on the work, so it does feel dated, even for the 1960s period in which it’s set. But there’s a lulling quality to the old fashioned repartee, which feels almost like a self-homage to Miller’s earlier, better loved plays. It’s not that the play’s known deficiencies aren’t present, but they don’t distract from its heart: four characters with conflicting interests trying, and failing, to find common ground over what appears to be furniture and turns out to be history itself.
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $22–$65. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.