On the surface, it looks completely ordinary, even mundane. Two brothers are struggling over how to dispose of their dead father’s things while a wife and an innocent bystander watch. But in The Price, one of Arthur Miller’s most intimate plays, there’s a lot going on, about secrets, responsibility, the pressure of history, the choices we make and their repercussions. Because the brothers — one a cop about to retire, the other a surgeon — haven’t spoken in sixteen years, and bad blood is thicker than water. All of the nuances of which come across beautifully in the Joy Carlin-led effort at the Aurora, a precise and heartfelt effort anchored by four excellent actors.
Miller always tried to fit form to subject matter rather than the other way around. So while some of his works played with time (Death of a Salesman) or were more dreamlike (After the Fall), The Price is a more traditional structure, linear and grounded. The ghosts in this one are only spoken of, they do not walk the stage, and the action of the play takes place in real time, the amount of time a man might have between getting off work and taking his wife to the movies.
Here that man is Charles Dean as Victor, who gave up a promising science career to take care of a father broken by the stock-market crash and a death in the family. Like all of the characters, Victor — a cop debating retirement — now must face how his choices have shaped his life. There’s a moment before a single word is spoken when he takes a few exploratory swipes with his old foil, and a flash of the young man he must have been comes through, graceful and swift. Dean gets the whole story — sacrifice, loss, and the male struggle for self-definition — into that moment. It’s impressive, but then so are Judith Marx as Victor’s maybe-alcoholic wife Esther, Michael Santo’s ambiguous Walter (snake, or no?), and the very funny Ray Reinhardt as Gregory Solomon, the appraiser Victor has called in, apparently straight from the Catskills.
What’s really interesting is that although Miller wrote that he wanted both brothers to be ultimately sympathetic, he still seems to side with Victor. He is pigheaded, yes, and it’s sad to see him kicking out against his brother’s clumsy attempts at rapprochement, but he holds the moral high ground, or tries to, through the play, even when a series of second-act revelations suggest that his brother Walter may not have been the complete bastard of the narrative to which Victor and Esther have clung for so long.
The Aurora comes across with the goods visually. Richard Olmsted and Rebecca Helgeson stack furniture like a protective wall between the family’s history and what could have been, with certain objects — a lamp, a chiffoniere — picked out with Jon Retsky’s pin-spots as the house lights dim. A jumble of rugs, a battered chandelier, and a dirty skylight fill out the attic haven where Victor took care of his beaten father. It feels exactly like the space Miller imagined, warm and sad and nearly impassable.
The design reinforces that this is a play written to human scale, even if as Miller claims it was meant to question the war in Vietnam. The relationships are finely drawn, from the largely heatless bickering of a couple who have been together for thirty years to the tension between the brothers, and the central question — what price do we pay for our choices? — clear.