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Stage Preview: Reviving Arthur Miller's 'The Price'

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Katherine Karlin

Playwright Arthur Miller has created some of the most indelible characters of American drama. Who can forget Willy Loman, the down-on-his luck patriarch of "Death of a Salesman"? Or John Proctor, the guilt-ridden hero of "The Crucible"?

And of course, there's Gregory Solomon.

 
 
"The Price"

dot.gif Where: Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh at Katz Performing Arts Center, Jewish Community Center, 5738 Darlington Road, Squirrel Hill.

dot.gif When: Performances begin Thursday and run through April 6: 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays.

dot.gif Tickets: $18 ($15 seniors, students); 412-394-3353.

   
 

While the feisty octogenarian appraiser from Miller's 1968 play, "The Price," may not be as familiar, he is, to use Miller's own word, a phenomenon.

"Miller wrote that Solomon is his favorite character," says Jonathan Rest, who directs "The Price" at the Jewish Theatre of Pittsburgh. In fact, it was the chance to have actor Allan Pinsker reprise his performance in this role, for which he won Chicago's Jefferson Award in 1993, that prompted the Jewish Theatre's revival.

"The Price" is the story of two middle-aged brothers -- one a policeman, the other a successful doctor -- who reunite to sell off the belongings of their late father.

"I think it's one of Miller's best plays," Rest says. "He wrote it nearly 20 years after 'Death of a Salesman,' and in many ways it's a more fragile play. There are only four characters, and if the balance between them isn't exactly right, the play doesn't work."

Although the play is set in 1968, its characters are haunted by the past, and the specter of the Depression has influenced all their choices. "Today we're going through another depression," Rest says. "A depression adjacent to a war. 'The Price' examines what happens to a family when their economic reality turns to nothing. What are the myths created around these families? More than anything, this is a play about myth."

It is also, Rest says, a play about the midlife issues affecting baby boomers as they enter their 50s. "As we deal with our parents' mortality, we begin to understand their failings, and wonder about how our own parenting compares to theirs."

For a play that premiered in a politically tumultuous era, "The Price" is acutely personal. And yet, says Rest, it is Miller's commentary on the times. "As a young man he was very involved in politics, particularly the Spanish Civil War. And he experienced a kind of cynicism afterwards. By dealing with the personal choices these characters make, 'The Price' registers Miller's feeling about what young people were going through in the '60s."

In addition to Pinsker, the cast includes Tony McKay and Joe Warik, as the brothers Victor and Walter, and Laurie Klatscher as Victor's wife, Esther.

"With an Arthur Miller play you have to do a lot of excavation," Rest says. "It's important for the actors to understand their characters' motivation. More than stagecraft, fancy lighting, or music, our biggest task is to peel away the layers down to the emotional subtext of each line."

The result of this excavation is a play in which every character is sympathetic. If the production is successful, Rest says, "the audience will walk away wondering who was right."

If there's a fifth character in the play, it might be the set designed by Martha Penaranda. It comprises the detritus of decades of family life and must speak for Victor and Walter's father, who can no longer speak for himself. The production crew built a harp for the family's prized possession. And, Rest says, he found the 1920s "Laughing Record" that the characters crank up on the old Victrola.

"I'm sure it's the one Arthur Miller referred to in his production notes," Rest says. "I think he would be pleased with the production. There are a lot of surprises in it. Of course, the play is written with surprises, but we've added a few of our own."

Katherine Karlin is a freelance writer.

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