Arthur Miller's best work examined the prices that people are willing to pay for upholding their beliefs (The Crucible) or for keeping up appearances (Death of a Salesman). Mr. Miller's play, The Price, which is being given a fine production through June 14 at San Diego's Old Globe Arena Stage, doesn't rank with his best work, but it places front and center the choices that influence the directions of each of our lives.
First produced in 1968, The Price proves to be something of an oddity in the Miller canon. At a time when the country was in turmoil, with a liberal political and social upheaval in the daily headlines, the overtly liberal playwright turned inward. He set The Price in the attic of a New York brownstone that is about to be demolished in favor of a larger building. Filled with old furniture (antiques, collectibles, junk, you decide), the attic also contains memories of a family that had been prominent until financial reversals brought on by the Great Depression forced the father to occupy only the building's top floor, as a charity case.
By the time of the play, both the father and the mother have been dead for years, and the two surviving sons have not spoken to each other since their father's death. Victor, the son who gave up a promising career as a scientist to care for his father, is now reaching age 50, an age where he could receive a pension from his job as a police officer and use it to pursue other interests. His wife Esther has sacrificed for Victor over the years and would now like to have a few small luxuries in her life. Selling the furniture for a good price would provide for such an opportunity.
Victor has contacted Gregory Solomon, an appraiser, to provide him with a price for the furniture. He has selected Solomon at random from a phonebook, and it turns out that Mr. Solomon is an 89-year-old man of Russian Jewish descent who has not worked as an appraiser for a number of years. But, for reasons that are never quite made clear, Mr. Solomon decides to come out of retirement to work on this deal. After a good deal of haggling, the men come to agreement on a price for the furniture, only to have Walter, Victor's brother, appear just as Mr. Solomon has begun to count out cash into Victor's hands.
At this point, the play turns into the kind of drama about family dynamics in which Mr. Miller specialized. The naturalism of the dialogue and the characters' direct but eloquent speech also characterize this work. If the resulting revelations are not as devastating or tragic as they are elsewhere in Mr. Miller's work, they are still revealing of how the choices we make, often without thinking them through, influence how we lead our lives.
The Old Globe's production was supposed to have provided audiences with an opportunity to see the great American actor Robert Prosky work onstage with two of his sons, Andy and John. Unfortunately, Robert Prosky died last December, and then John dropped out of the production.
No matter. The fine character actor Dominic Chianese (most famously "Uncle Junior" in television's "The Sopranos") stepped in to portray Mr. Solomon, and Globe regular James Sutorius portrays Walter. Andy Prosky remains as Victor, and Leisa Mather, whose bio suggests that she is becoming something of a Price specialist, portrays Esther.
Mr. Chianese nails the tone and mannerisms of a Russian Jewish immigrant who has grown old in Manhattan. Ms. Mather perfectly embodies New York in the 1960s (think of the young Barbra Streisand), though her voice does not carry as well in the arena setting as do the others. The character of Walter brings most of the surprises with him, and Mr. Sutorius' performance cagily does not tip its hand too early. Mr. Prosky has the most difficult character to play, as all of Victor's strengths and resentments are on display from the beginning; essentially, the story is told from his point of view. Mr. Prosky is adept at playing both the strengths and the resentments, and his flat, matter-of-fact vocal tone fits the dialogue magnificently. When confronted with his choices and how they have affected his actions, however, Victor remains a "dumb cop" in Mr. Prosky's portrayal, and I think probably more was there than was seen onstage.
Richard Seer's production pokes at what is underneath the surface without completely revealing it. His opening, featuring Chris Rynne's lighting and Paul Peterson's excellent sound design, is particularly effective, however, and I wish there were been more moments like those as the play progresses.
The Old Globe is staging classic dramas in its arena space once a season. Previous choices The Glass Menagerie and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf were fairly obvious ones, while The Price represents an admirable opportunity to consider a lesser play by a major playwright. Next season's production of Neil Simon's Pulitzer-Prize winning Lost in Yonkers will also serve to keep this series interesting.
The Old Globe presents The Price by Arthur Miller. Directed by Richard Seer, with scenic design by Robin Sanford Roberts, costume design by Charlotte Devaux Shields, lighting design by Chris Rynne, and sound design by Paul Peterson. With Andy Prosky, Leisa Mather, Dominic Chianese, and James Sutorius. Performing at The Old Globe Arena Stage at the James S. Copley Auditorium, San Diego Museum of Art, through June 14. Tickets $29-$59, available at (619) 234-5623, or online at The Old Globe's website.