Jason Chanos in Arthur Miller’s The Price. Scenic Design by Gene Freidman. Photo by Brian Paulette.
The City Stage at Union Station is crammed with large, heavy, ornate furniture — chairs stacked on armoires, lamps and statuary piled on tables and buffets. Enter a weary, street-beaten policeman, back in his childhood home for the first time since his father’s death, pulling off dust cloths, righting chairs, winding up the gramophone. This is Victor (KC Rep Associate Artistic Director and veteran actor Jason Chanos, making his KCAT debut), waiting for the arrival of Mr. Solomon, an antiques appraiser, whom he is hoping will take the load off his hands, hopefully for enough money to sweeten his penny-pinching life.
The once-fashionable furniture was purchased by Victor’s parents on grand European tours in the prelapsarian heydays of yore. When the family’s considerable fortune was lost in the great crash of 1929, and their father turned into an unemployed, despairing shell of his former self, Victor quit college to join the police force and contribute his paychecks to buy the family groceries.
His brother Walter, meanwhile, became a renowned doctor, with a large house in Rye and multiple lucrative businesses on the side. Yet despite the affluence, Walter gave the family scant assistance. So the brothers are embittered and estranged: Cain and Abel, Good Cop and Bad, the one who sacrificed and the one who prospered.
We must be factual, Mr. Solomon keeps telling Victor, and in this, his most autobiographical play, written twenty years after Death of a Salesman, Miller lays out baldly the facts of his own family: the father bankrupted by the Great Depression, and the ruined father’s two sons — the one who leaves to pursue success, like Arthur, and the one who stays to help the failed family and family business, as did Arthur’s brother.
KCAT stalwart Jan Rogge manages to bring warmth and complexity to the underwritten role of Victor’s wife Esther, who is tired of counting out the cost of movie tickets and watching her husband waste his life in bitter hopelessness. And Mark Robbins brings his sharp, saturnine intelligence to the role of the unapologetically selfish brother Walter, portraying self-knowledge as a deep well of darkness.
But Victor Raider-Wexler is a thief of the first degree and steals scenes shamelessly, all while his Mr. Solomon is robbing Victor blind. With his colorful, Yiddish-inflected pronouncements, picayune tangents, and sudden, dramatic, conveniently timed fits of weakness, the waggily limping, Old-World dapper Mr. Solomon is a glad-handing, gas-bagging, blue-chip B.S. artist. But is he also the all-wise Solomon ready to split the baby into equal shares? The old man offers less for the entire crowded attic than the original cost of the carved Jacobean dining table alone, yet when he claims his price is a fair one, who can argue otherwise?
This is the Kansas City Actors Theatre’s first full season since 2019, and despite the hiatus the company seems not to have swerved from its mission of “great actors, smart plays.” Yet some of the thought provoked this opening night concerned the choice of material. Like the outdated furniture Victor is seeking to unload, which is too cumbersome and unwieldy to fit into modern apartments, modern doorways and modern lives, so somewhere near the end of the second act The Price starts to feel ponderous and over-stuffed, a protracted series of revelations and confrontations contrived for the purpose of certain accusations and defenses that Miller is exhaustively, obsessively making, against and for himself.
The Price debuted in 1968, in the thick of the Tet Offensive and weeks before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Little wonder that at the time The New Republic accused Miller of writing “social-psychological melodrama about family responsibility at a time when our cities are burning.”
But as we now know, it all intersects. Cities still burn. Family responsibility still calls. And Miller’s Jacobean dining table is solidly made. In our own age of war and racial injustice, not to mention record inflation and increasing economic disparity, this play’s questions resonate — What does it mean to be fortunate? Do we want a real life? And can we pay the price?
Through June 5 at City Stage at Union Station. kcactors.org. Directed by Dennis D. Hennessy with Scenic Design by Gene Freidman and Costumes by Sarah Oliver