We all recognize Arthur Miller as one of the greatest Jewish-American writers of the 20th Century, but while he never made any attempts to hide his Jewish heritage, very few of the characters who populate his best known plays are specifically identified as Jews. One notable exception is “Gregory Solomon,” the wily old coot who commands center stage in The Price (currently playing at the Victory Gardens Greenhouse in Lincoln Park). When Solomon (wonderfully played by New York stage veteran Maury Cooper) makes his grand entrance midway through act one, Miller’s stage directions describe him as: “In brief, a phenomenon.” As the play progresses and we learn the details of his life, Solomon becomes nothing less than the archetypical Ashkenazi survivor: “You see, all my life I was a terrible fighter – you could never take nothing from me;” he says (speaking with a “Russian-Yiddish accent”), “I pushed, I pulled, I struggled in six different countries, I nearly got killed a couple times…”
Victor Franz has called Solomon in to appraise the contents of an apartment he once shared with his father. When Walter Franz walks on stage at the end of act one, the brothers are meeting for the first time since their father’s death. Although Victor has assured Solomon that this transaction will be an easy one, Solomon knows better: “…even from high-class people you wouldn’t believe the shenanigans – lawyers, college professors, television personalities – five hundred dollars they’ll pay a lawyer to fight over a bookcase it’s worth fifty cents – because you see, everybody want to be number one, so…” In the end, after the brothers have exhausted themselves debating the cost of past decisions as well as the price of future options, Solomon has the last laugh, literally. According to Miller, Solomon “leans back sprawling in the chair, laughing with tears in his eyes, howling helplessly to the air.”
The Price, which premiered at the Morosco Theatre in 1968, was a critical and commercial success, but when Miller died in 2005 very few of his eulogists mentioned it in the list of his greatest works. I dimly remember having seen it on Broadway during my college years, but I was frankly unprepared for how deeply this play would resonate now that I am roughly the same age as the battling Franz brothers.
Shattered Globe Theatre’s excellent production of The Price runs through March 3. For tickets, call the Victory Gardens box office at (773) 871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org