When you think of existential theater, Arthur Miller doesn’t come immediately to mind, but in “The Price,” which is getting a stunning revival at New Haven’s Long Wharf, the playwright zeroes in on such fundamental questions as the value, purpose and responsibilities of a life.
Miller stuffs the play with themes that include disappointment, American consumerism and sibling rivalry, much like designer Eugene Lee stuffs the set to the rafters with furniture representing a family’s once golden and now disposable life. But take a closer look at that table, that harp, a rowing oar, an old phonograph record and, as further details are revealed, what at first appears to be of limited worth is found to be of profound value.
Under Gordon Edelstein’s beautifully measured and humanistic helming, the quartet of characters shines a light onto Miller’s moralizing universe, here telescoped into an engrossing domestic drama — the selling of a long-deceased patriarch’s possessions, which stirs resentment, jealousies and guilt in a pair of estranged brothers.
Willie Loman isn’t the only Miller character who carries heavy baggage. The weight of lives misspent is great indeed in “The Price,” which shows the destructive illusions of the American Dream from another perspective. “It’s always the same story,” a character says. “But it’s different.”
Dutiful son Victor (Marco Barricelli) gave up a promising career in science to take a job as a cop in order to care for his father, a wealthy businessman crushed by the Crash and immobilized by the Depression. Meanwhile, his brother Walter (Jeff McCarthy) left the familial burdens to Victor while he pursued wealth and status as a surgeon.
Victor’s anxious wife Esther (Kate Forbes) sees the money from the remains of the father’s estate as her last chance to start a new life with her husband, if he can move on from his long-suppressed anger toward his brother.
Finally, ancient furniture dealer Gregory Solomon (David Margulies) appraises more than the attic’s contents.
Margulies, who played the role a decade earlier at the Guthrie, returns to the part with a perf of well-seasoned brilliance, artfully mining every comic and dramatic turn (and there are plenty for this gem of a character). With sly and bombastic turns, the thesp profoundly connects to his resilient character’s life force.
It’s a testament of the production’s strengths, though, that when the irresistible Margulies leaves the stage for much of the second act, the play continues its build. Tension between the brothers increases and Miller plumbs the complexities of a family’s — and American society’s — paradoxical relationship with responsibility and compassion. But Edelstein and his cast present no heroes or villains.
The cast is uniformly impressive, showing their characters’ perspectives with sympathy and understanding.
McCarthy reveals the other side of his smooth persona, showing the cracks in the successful veneer until it shatters with a terrible fury. As the wavering wife torn between loyalty and desperation, Forbes shows what effects the brothers’ struggle for their souls have on her own deferred dreams. And Barricelli lays out his character’s troubled self with steadfast dignity, doubt and heartbreaking ache, as he struggles to come to terms with his own sense of value.