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Theater | REVIEW

Pain runs in the family

A Noise Within's production gets to the tragic heart of Arthur Miller's 'The Price.'

November 07, 2003|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

Even when they're not around, Arthur Miller's flawed fathers make their sons' lives hell. In "The Price," he's nothing but an empty chair in an abandoned walk-up apartment, to which his middle-age heirs have come to sell off the furniture just ahead of the wrecking ball.

But their long-dead patriarch, once crushed by the Great Depression and by his own greater depression, might as well be sitting in his former throne: His sons Victor (Geoff Elliott) and Walter (Robertson Dean), and Victor's embittered wife Esther (Deborah Strang) step around it gingerly, gesture in its direction, argue with it but never sit in it, as if the old man were still there, emanating the silent reproach of failure.

Failure may hang over this, Miller's most Chekhovian tragedy, like so many dust covers, but A Noise Within's new production is a resounding success -- a wrenching, riveting real-time accounting of regrets and roads not taken that accumulates force with the inevitable, lulling flow of music.

It's not a stirring symphonic suite but a sere, heart-rending chamber piece, intimate and painful as therapy. As with all of Miller's works, there are some exposed gears in the moral engineering; no play of his can get by without a few jabs at class, power and money.

But in the hands of co-directors Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott and the three leads, "The Price" has real tragic stature. As Victor, a beat cop who stuck selflessly by Dad through his leanest years, the passive-aggressive Elliott dominates the play with his deliberate gait and wary honesty. His spine bent and stiffened by resentment, he carries himself with grave significance, even if he's not sure anymore what it signifies.

As his disappointed spouse Esther, Strang hits a difficult note between nag and conscience -- the unappetizing domain of many of Miller's women -- and nails it with blinding confidence. There are few actresses around who could make such sense of Esther without holding back an inch of her unseemly candor and nettlesome anger. The reward, as Strang's marvelously constructed performance reaches its denouement, is a cracked, touching vulnerability.

Dean has an even tougher job as Walter, the brother who ran as far as he could from his bankrupt home into a lucrative life as a surgeon. A late arrival to the furniture fire sale, Dean has only one act to make Walter's case and try to make amends. Dean manages to etch a moving portrait of a bruised soul emerging from a shell of privilege and denial, an effective counterweight to Victor's unbudging lumpen pride -- and he and Elliott play off each other with well-shaded, unbridled immediacy.

Providing a subtle counterweight to their father's poisoning defeatism is Gregory Solomon, the ancient, sprightly dealer brought in to appraise the furniture. He's a diverting strain of klezmer in this chamber drama and, as played with unfussy, in-character relish by Len Lesser, he attains as much gravity by play's end as the central family drama.

Matching Miller's earnestness with its own passionate, in-the-moment emotional authenticity, this "Price" is right.

*

'The Price'

Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: Wednesday-next Thursday and Nov. 21, 29, Dec. 4, 8 p.m.; Sunday and Nov. 30, 2 and 7 p.m.; Nov. 22, 2 and 8 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 4

Price: $20-$40

Contact: (818) 240-0910

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

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