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The Price

TimeLine Theatre dusts off a roomful of antiques and an Arthur Miller classic.

Kymberly Mellen and Bret Tuomi in Arthur Miller's The Price, directed by Louis Contey, at Chicago's TimeLine Theatre.
(© Lara Goetsch)

In Arthur Miller's 1968 drama The Price, four characters haggle over the price of old furniture. That's essentially a summation of the entire show: Four people in an attic, arguing about the value of dusty chifforobes, armoires, and dining sets stacked floor to ceiling.

It's a testament to the genius of Arthur Miller that despite a plot that seems like a recipe for stasis, The Price is as riveting as an action-packed thriller. Directed by Louis Contey, TimeLine Theatre's production is defined by a blistering urgency and propulsive forward momentum. Visually sumptuous and emotionally rich, it's an explosive opening volley in the jam-packed fall theater season.

Miller's plot is deceptively simple. Victor Franz (Bret Tuomi) is a 50-something beat cop trying to unload a houseful of furniture stashed away in the attic of the New York City building that was once his father's home. The father is dead, the building is being torn down, and the antiques have been gathering dust for years. Victor's wife, Esther (Kymberly Mellen), hopes to get enough cash from the family treasures to take a much-needed vacation, or maybe even to start a nest egg that will allow Victor to retire from a job he has always hated. There's only one potential catch as Victor negotiates a price with nonagenarian dealer Gregory Solomon (Mike Nussbaum): Half the stuff is technically owned by Victor's brother, Walter (Roderick Peeples), a wealthy surgeon who hasn't been in contact with the family for years.

When Walter is just about to close the deal with Solomon, however, Victor returns. That's the only predictable moment in Miller's masterfully woven plot. The long-festering family secrets that inevitably come boiling to the surface aren't what you expect. Neither are the final deliberations over all those once loved but now useless belongings. The result is a show that's both heartbreaking and infused with tension.

Contey's cast is ferociously good, but it's Nussbaum's wily, manipulative, and thoroughly charming Gregory Solomon who is the show's heart and soul. At 91, Nussbaum's in his prime, as he has been for the past 60 years or so. He digs in with the energy of an actor a third his age and the razor-edged wisdom that comes from experiencing the better part of an entire century. When Solomon recalls his days as a vaudeville star and a young whelp with the British Royal Navy, you glimpse a lifetime's worth of adventures.

Solomon's deceptively gentle patter seems to indicate a harmless little old man who is a bit dotty, a vulnerable soul you want to protect from being taken advantage of out in the big, bad world. But Solomon isn't the one in the attic who needs protection. He's as savvy and manipulative as a chess master, keying into the family dynamics at play between the brothers and sparking a family firestorm that's been smoldering for decades. He's so subtle that Walter and Victor (and the audience) never realize that they're always a move behind.

As Victor, Tuomi nails the weariness of a man forced to contend with the fact that his entire adult life has been a joyless, pointless rut that he'll probably never escape. It's a gut-wrenching performance — Victor's devastation is a terrifying reminder of just how short and easily wasted life is. Peeples' Walter is also powerful, a chilling portrait of a Richard Cory figure whose success is shed as easily as his expensive camel hair coat.

Mellen's prickly, strong-minded Esther is equal parts ambition and compassion – and a portrait of a woman whose own life could have been so much more had she only been born in an era when women could become more than wives and homemakers. Everything about Mellen radiates power, but as a middle-aged housewife in the 1960s world of The Price, all that power is about as useful as the out-of-tune harp in the attic.

Brian Sydney Bembridge's set design is an immersive masterpiece, with the lobby serving as an extension of the stage. Like the stage, the lobby is packed with castoff furniture – to get to your seat, you have to wind through a maze of clawfoot bathtubs, fringed settees, stain-glass floor lamps, old fencing equipment and long-neglected crewing paddles. It's an atmosphere instilled with sadness. You're in a graveyard for things that were once loved, and are now meaningless. It's impossible to set foot in this place without being hit by the fact that eventually your own life will amount to a room like this.

Though it's early in the season to be thinking about Top 10 lists, it's tough to imagine The Price being omitted from those year-end rosters. Nussbaum is a superlative-defying workhorse powerhouse in his prime at an age when most of us are, at the very least, slowing way down. Factor in the emotionally gut-punching performances of Mellen, Tuomi and Peeples, and you've got a production well worth the price of a ticket.

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