By Hugh Hunter
Stagecrafters is currently presenting “The Price” (1968), by Arthur Miller, a taut domestic drama that is bound to grip your attention.
The story is simple. Two brothers, Victor and Walter Franz, are permanently estranged. When they have to meet in order to sell the family heirlooms, Walter does not show up. For Victor, still wearing his police officer’s uniform, this is an old story.
Right from Victor’s opening moments of solitary brooding, you sympathize with him as a man with a grievance. You learn that he gave up a promising career as a scientist in order to support his father, a man broken by the Great Depression. At the same time, brother Walter just abandoned the family and went on to become a wealthy doctor.
Directed by David Flagg, the stage set is overpowering and almost tells its own story (set design, Scott Killinger). It is an attic in a New York brownstone full of tables, chairs and chests, phonographs, a fencing foil, a classical harp. What secrets lie locked up in this conglomeration? We find out.
Flagg’s cast is top notch. Dan Gudema almost steals the show as Gregory Solomon, the furniture appraiser. Nearly 90 years old, Solomon is an immigrant from Russia. Speaking with a Yiddish accent, he makes a host of folksy observations even as he downgrades the furniture’s value so as to connive Victor into accepting a low price.
Faith Yesner has a tougher field to plow as Esther, Victor’s wife. Her personal haplessness is unexplained; her main function here is to prod Victor into a more sincere expression of what he really wants. (Notwithstanding Miller’s feminist beliefs, in much of his work women characters are mere accessories.)
But both Esther and Solomon are foils for the brothers. Philip McCrossan is utterly believable as the mysteriously conflicted Victor — resentful, uncommunicative, basically honorable but also less than honest. He meets his match in Walter, strongly performed by John Reardon. Walter will not give Victor the chance to dodge hard truths.
And what are the hard truths? You never lose the sympathy you feel for Victor, but the easy view of him as an honorable man who has been dealt a series of caddish blows collapses into a more complicated truth.
“The Price” is Arthur Miller at nearly his best. Having lived through the Great Depression — his own businessman father was bankrupted — Miller takes “the system” to task. And yet, for all those people caught up in the sweep of such great events, he argues that our sympathies also have to take into account the “victim’s” own need to lie and self-deceive.
The idea of a family with “buried secrets” is the basic stuff of melodrama. But the intelligence of Miller’s script and the uncompromising Stagecrafters production take “The Price” to a different level, and give us a convincing glimpse into the moral ambiguity that lies hidden in ordinary human affairs.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “The Price” will run through June 26. Reservations at 215-247-9913.