National Jewish Theater

at Mayer Kaplan Jewish Community Center

When Victor Franz returns to his late father’s home with the intention of selling off his family’s remaining belongings, his moral dilemma appears simple. He threw away his own life to take care of his father, who had lost everything during the Depression, while his loutish brother turned his back on the family. Now unable to support his wife in the manner she would like, Victor is paying the price for having chosen not to live up to his potential.

But Arthur Miller’s The Price refuses to take the position of the standard heart-wringing, sell-the-family-house melodrama, which declares the importance of embracing one’s heritage instead of ignoring it. Written in 1968 sometime after After the Fall and slightly before the fall of Miller, The Price is a grippingly unsentimental portrait of a family’s legacy; the play cynically proposes that all decisions–even seemingly selfless ones–are made for selfish reasons and that our need to justify those decisions stops us from learning useful lessons from our past.

As the play opens Victor’s life is in as much disarray as his father’s apartment. Approaching retirement age as a New York beat cop, Victor is saddled with feelings of inadequacy. His alcoholic wife Esther belittles him. His son went off to college to seek the education he could never afford for himself. When the spry 89-year-old vaudevillian-turned-salesman Gregory Solomon comes to buy off what remains of the Franz family heritage, Victor is all too willing to close the door on the past and agree to the first price Solomon offers. But when brother Walter returns seeking forgiveness and friendship, all the misery of Victor’s life is thrown back in his face.

Victor would like to think of himself as a martyr who sacrificed his life to feed his father. But when Walter arrives he reveals that Victor’s martyrdom was unnecessary. There was always more than enough money around for Victor to pursue whatever dream he chose–he need only look at all the expensive things in his father’s home to prove it. Walter suggests that it was Victor’s need to be loved that made him cling to an image of his family that was never true, and he invites Victor to put the past aside and embrace what little of his future is left. But for Victor to do this would be tantamount to admitting that his life was meaningless. Reconciliation is impossible, and at the end both men are broken by the choices they made–neither can escape his past. Walter can’t receive the forgiveness he needs and departs in shame, while Victor clings to a false image of the past to prove that he’s not a failure. The wily Solomon is left to sell the shattered pieces of a family where love did not exist.

The bitterness of The Price lingers long after the final curtain. Miller’s pessimistic vision of free will indicates that we’re always free to make whatever choices we wish, but we’ll wind up regretting any decision we make. Miller presents the family as a business transaction in which all participants agree to maintain an illusion of love and happiness to cover up the fact that they’re just part of a deal. They try to perpetuate the illusion in their minds by reinterpreting the past, though the grim truth is obvious to anyone who dares open his eyes and look at the misery. As Esther bluntly puts it, “You believe what you see.”

Very near the end of the play Solomon speaks of his daughter who committed suicide many years earlier. “Every night I lay down to sleep, she’s sitting there. I see her clear like you,” he says. “But if it was a miracle and she came to life, what would I say to her?” He then takes out some money and begins to pay Victor for the furniture. It’s Solomon’s, and perhaps Miller’s, impression that fretting over the past is useless. We would make the same decisions over and over again. In the end the only thing that matters is a price.

Though undeniably a moving, thoughtful piece of theater, The Price has its flaws. In parts it’s talky and repetitive, and sometimes Miller uses devices that are a wee bit phony to get people in and out of scenes. Wanting Victor and Solomon to discuss the furniture alone, Miller shoves Esther out the door on a shopping errand–something she probably wouldn’t really do since she’s obsessed with getting a fair price. And to facilitate Victor and Walter’s reunion, Miller gives Solomon a physical ailment and boots him into an adjoining room to recuperate. Miller also makes Victor, Walter, and Solomon brilliantly complex and believable, but Esther, described in the script solely as “his wife,” is too much of a reactor, reduced to providing important items of information and kvetching.

B.J. Jones’s faithful production of Miller’s play at National Jewish Theater succeeds admirably on at least three counts. Craig Spidle’s Victor realistically captures the policeman’s enervated frustration, Joe Van Slyke’s Walter must be exactly what Miller had in mind when he wrote the script, and Allan Pinsker’s terrifically hammy portrayal of Solomon is at once hilarious and touching. Pinsker steals the first act and might have stolen the second as well if Miller hadn’t kept him offstage for most of it. Peggy Roeder’s Esther doesn’t quite match the efforts of her three distinguished cohorts. When she’s onstage, Roeder is a stiff, annoying presence whose emotional outbursts never sound like more than whining.

The only other downside to this powerful revival is the gooey new-age music that introduces and concludes the play. The treacly sound track is in direct conflict with the soberingly unromantic show.