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Theater Review:

"THE PRICE" at Writers’ Theatre (Books on Vernon in Glencoe)

BY LUCIA MAURO

Arthur Miller’s dialogue – at once eviscerating and luminous – in his 1968 family drama, "The Price," has the capacity to snip through layers of long-dormant resentment and self-imposed ennui to tear open festering wounds that can never heal. But even before any words are uttered, audiences packed snugly into Writers’ Theatre in the back of Books on Vernon in Glencoe will experience a tour-de-force of silent revelation.

Set in an attic, where New York City police officer Victor meets with an antique appraiser to sell his deceased father’s once-exquisite possessions, "The Price" opens with Victor journeying quietly back to a past he has idealized in his mind. He stumbles and crawls his way through Joey Wade’s artfully cluttered set stacked high with mahogany chairs, fixtures, hat boxes, a homemade radio, a rocking horse, a Victrola and a harp crowned by a chipped and leaf-stained skylight. We feel like we’re crammed into this attic, too.

As Victor, Jeff Still – with an air of reverence and reluctance – slowly turns on each vintage lamp. And, in the process, highly personal lightbulbs begin to go off in his head -- especially as he relives his Ivy League college years through one longing glimpse at a fencing mask and sword.

But his battles are profoundly interior. Amid all these dusty remnants of an existence, Victor must come to terms with his own unfulfilled life and how much of that lack of purpose was his fault. As this intricate drama unfolds – perfectly calibrated by director David Cromer – textured and operatic verbal routs ensue. We learn that Victor and his flustered wife Esther have supposedly sacrificed a comfortable lifestyle when Victor was forced to care for his ailing, embittered father – who lost everything in the crash of 1929. The son became a cop because, as he leads us to believe, his brother Walter refused to send money for him to pursue scientific studies.

Now a renowned surgeon, Walter unexpectedly arrives to make peace with Victor. A pivotal figure in these negotiations of the heart and mind is the octogenarian antique appraiser, Gregory Solomon, whose evaluations exist in the realm of inexplicable human nature.

There is such a layered richness to this play and production, it’s best experienced rather than analyzed in writing. The brilliance of the piece is rooted in Miller’s insistence on not stopping at mere sibling rivalry. Each scene unpeels more inner deceptions as the playwright addresses the idea of how we invent our lives – or become selective in our memories -- as a form of face-saving denial. The play is not so much about the choices we make, but the disaster that results from making no choices at all.

And, just when we think the characters have reached closure, another wound bursts open making their power plays, accusations, self-justifications and admonitions of guilt impossible to reconcile until life itself is reduced to absurdity.

Cromer – who reunites most of the cast from his outstanding production of "Orson’s Shadow" – favors a broiling intimacy that forces everyone into close quarters, where the need to break out permeates the space at the same time we feel the soothing embrace of nostalgia. Jeff Still encompasses Victor’s regret, confounded sentimentality, immovability and need to settle into the comfort zone of deliberately blissful ignorance. A powerful actor with a resonant voice, Still also is capable of unveiling Victor’s diametrically opposed desires in a whisper. As Walter, John Judd gradually displays his character’s mental bruises without resorting to self-pity or rage.

As the desperately self-interested and worn-out Esther, Lee Roy Rogers surveys a grand expanse of dimensions. She can register irreparable regret through delicately choreographed gesture when Victor arrives for their dinner engagement in his omnipresent police uniform. Anchoring the production in wisdom, humor, charm and gravity is Howard Witt as the antique dealer with painfully honest insight into the appreciation or depreciation of the human soul.

In addition to Wade’s meticulous clutter, Jaymi Lee Smith’s memory-inspired lighting design serves as a silent counterpart to Miller’s dramatic conundrums.•

"The Price" runs through March 31 at Writers’ Theatre in Books on Vernon, 664 Vernon Ave., Glencoe. Tickets: $38. Call 847-835-5398 or log onto www.writerstheatre.org.


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