Families pay a heavy price for holding onto the lie of beloved heirlooms, when really the detritus of life — old phonographs, battered bedroom dressers, high school sports memorabilia — becomes more burden than treasure.
The lesson of what happens when families hold on for too long — to lies, lost hopes, ancient arguments and bitter disappointments — inhabits playwright Arthur Miller’s 1960s family drama, The Price.
Olney Theatre Center’s production of Miller’s 1968 play, which runs through June 21, roots itself in the past. From James Fouchard’s set of antique furniture and the flotsam and jetsam of a family to the uninhibited mid-20th century gusto with which the actors imbue their characters, to Kelsey Hunt’s careful costumes — a peach-color Jackie O wool blend for the only woman, and the well-tailored mid-century suits for the dueling Franz brothers at the center of Miller’s conflict — Olney’s production fulfills the play’s promise.
Vic Franz holds the moral center. A good city cop in the decaying mid-century New York — not the current boomtown — Vic has kept his nose clean, sacrificed for his family and, nearing 50 and retirement, is adrift. Esther, his well-coiffed and clad wife, firmly ensconced in their striving by sacrificing lifestyle, has succumbed to housewife syndrome. With her son off to college, there’s little to occupy her days. Walter, the older Franz brother, enters late, but serves as the fuse that ignites the second act — one full of turmoil, recriminations, admissions and a hefty amount of emotional bloodletting.
Charlie Kevin’s Vic is the realist in this less-than-familial triumvirate: he’s a nose-to-the-grindstone guy, accepting his lot in life. Valerie Leonard’s Esther, sporting an old school New York accent, has the air of a kept woman, while Sean Haberle’s Walter wears his Mad Men-esque plasticity like a mask on which he plasters his successes and hides his failings. Haberle is the least convincing of the trio.
Gregory Solomon, a crotchety dealer of used furniture who is called in to buy out the tangible remnants of the Franz family’s faded wealth — old furniture steeped in older memories — is likely the most outwardly Jewish character Miller created during his career. Conrad Feininger brings best to this most memorable creation. His entrance — out of breath, shuffling with a cane in hand, eyes squinting below bushy, gray brows — sets the tone for this 89-year-old wheeler-dealer to infiltrate the secrets and long-held animosities of a crumbling family.
Vic is selling off final remnants of his father’s long and unproductive life. The Franz patriarch never appears in the play, but is a shadowy presence — the ghost who was never exorcised. Family history continues dragging the two brothers into an abyss of dysfunction. Those Franz brothers, estranged for more than 16 years, reconnect for this final filial act of disposing the goods. They are selling their mother’s beloved harp, one brother’s fencing equipment and the armoires filled with glamorous clothes going to the moths.
One brother, Vic, sacrificed himself — and his family — after the Depression and stock market crash caused his father to lose hope. The other brother, Walter, let the chips fall and forged ahead on his own.
Director Michael Bloom lets Miller’s script work its magic; there are no flourishes; no tricks. This is old-fashioned theater at its best: actors sparring in a survival of the fittest battle for moral superiority in the face of family destruction.
Is the Franz family Jewish? Probably. But, like Miller’s best-known creation, Willy Loman, the Franzes are every family, steeped in love and obligation, jealousies and missed opportunities. But Gregory, with his Yiddish inflections and Old World ways, his suggestion that he fled Europe for the land of opportunity — America — is likely Miller’s most explicit Jewish invention, stemming from the writer’s deep Jewish imagination for oddballs, dreamers and strivers.
There’s a touch of Willy Loman in Gregory Solomon — the vigorous drive toward hope, of another job, another opportunity to buy and sell wares before his time is done. The younger characters — the Franzes — children of the Depression have lost that.
Ultimately, Miller’s bequest in The Price is one of dichotomous values: self-preservation versus self-sacrifice, grudge-bearing versus forgiveness, overbearing relations versus intractable distance. That the play was penned shortly after the birth of the author’s autistic son, whom he institutionalized and rarely visited, seems prescient in suggesting some of Miller’s own family demons. The Price came to the stage in the 1960s, amid a period of remarkable restructuring of our American societal values. From the Vietnam war to the civil rights movement, women’s rights to gay rights and with rising tide of the sexual revolution, the very foundation of the American family was upended, both socially and economically. In the face of wrestling through current crises of national proportions, Miller’s tact, nearly a half-century ago, remains a story of our time. The Price is an intimate play set in motion by a crisis that rings of universal truths. Olney’s production makes the work vivid once more.
The Price by Arthur Miller, through June 21 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. Tickets $38-$65. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org.