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Ghosts of the past haunt a timely production of ‘The Price’ at Riverside

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The Price

Riverside Theatre — Through Nov. 18

Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers and Jim Kern in ‘The Price.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

After hearing that Riverside Theatre would stage Arthur Miller’s The Price, I was interested — not only because I’ve learned to appreciate the performances of Tim Budd and Kristy Hartsgroove Mooers from their embodiment of Shakespearean comedy, but also because I have a profound respect for Miller’s writing. I taught Death of a Salesman for years on end, marveling at the power of his insight into the human condition and ways that social structures replicate and reinforce flaws and failings of families. I had never seen a production in the Riverside downtown theater space itself and figured that this would be an excellent opportunity.

I had come to know the Gilbert Street theater from a series of musical recitals; this time, however, what impressed me was the absence of a proscenium arch or curtains. Combined with the close proximity of the seats — only seven rows of tiers — I felt that, even in the back, I was in the middle of the action. As I sat, awaiting the show, the overstuffed stage felt as though it encroached into my space in the audience. The new artistic director at the theater, Adam Knight, introduced himself and the season and things began.

The first act of the play, with which I had no prior knowledge, moved along like American clockwork. The themes that I’d loved discussing in my literature courses — the problems of time and memory, hopes and dreams, temporariness and potentiality — were quickly brought to life in the context of the Franz family, assembled to dispose of the accumulated material possessions of the patriarch. Unlike the sparse set of Salesman, The Price is almost claustrophobic, literalizing the weighty burdens that correspond with what our society deems success.

The cast of ‘The Price.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

The first act is primarily a set of paired conversations, deployed with a regulated pacing. One almost senses the tempo aligned to an invisible, soundless metronome that allows Miller’s cadence and the rise of fall of emotions to move closer to a climax or conclusion. Throughout the play, the Franz family consistently seems unwilling to face the loneliness of silence. Gregory Solomon alone, whose opaque motivations and sickly body are brilliantly embodied by a delightful Jim Kern, seems at peace with solitude. In general, while lines are delivered with passion or reserve, the production allows a sense of accumulation — like the crowded stage — in which everything adds together.

If the first act is an accumulation of tension, the second act shows how the weight of these tensions causes the characters to begin to collapse on themselves. It begins where the first act ends, with the arrival of Walter Franz, the brother whose absence dominates the first act. Kehry Anson Lane, whom audiences may remember from his role as Macduff, does an excellent job of embodying the tensions that Miller gives to Walter. Alongside Budd’s Victor, Lane realistically conveys the tensions of having to confront the ghosts of the past, embodied by the families that give lie to the stories we tell ourselves about how we became who we are. The most dominant ghost — a neat trick pulled off by the staging of the play — is the one who occupies the chair that dominates the center of the stage, the failed patriarch whose lack of integrity destroyed the future generation he had given life.

Mooers does a phenomenal job as Victor’s wife, Esther — a character that requires her to convey the tension between recognizing and fighting against the misogyny most manifest in Solomon (but still present in both the condescension and the need for affirmation offered by the Franz brothers) and also her own self-deceptive tendencies that have intertwined with those present in Victor to create a sense of stagnation. Throughout the play, Mooers shows how Esther’s longing for a real life — which both drives and suspends the dynamic tensions of the production (made visible as characters alternate between sitting and pacing) — is something that has not gone out of style.

Tim Budd in ‘The Price.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

Miller excels at depicting the timeless agonies of modern life. His use of terms like “anymore” in statements like “what’s the good of things anymore?” opens a vast sense of futurelessness that combines with the claustrophobic set to offer a visible explanation for why we — still, today — feel trapped in lives whose miseries have never seemed chosen. The whole of the production embodies this quality of timelessness, this hopeless space where we shut ourselves out of a future through an unwillingness to reckon honestly with our pasts. The themes of the play — the prices that we are willing to pay needlessly, what we’re willing to cost ourselves through sacrifices that we know better than to examine too closely, the need for a faith and belief that was shattered in the 1920s (and which also seems difficult to find today), the need for and problems with suspicion — are clearly relevant to contemporary social problems and understandings.

The Price offers audiences a rare opportunity to watch a diagnosis of the human condition capably performed by four talented actors. In two hours, the cast and crew provide an opening into how not to grapple with a broken system and broken lives. We see how to prevent the kinds of tragedies that haunt American families, when we tend to stare at salvation at reach and spend time fantasizing about how it is not for us. It exposes the sense of shame that current culture calls “white male fragility” that seems too awful to recognize in another — and the tragic consequences of participating in covering that shame. Audiences should watch for the talkback performance Friday, Nov. 9 with Dr. Miriam Gilbert, Iowa City’s resident expert on drama as literature, and the cast. Tickets to all shows are $30.


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