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Haunted Hearts 

In The Price, Arthur Miller once again spanks the American Dream gone awry.

To see a production as finely etched as Neil Thackaberry's rendering of Arthur Miller's The Price, one must make sacrifices. Astute theater lovers must, like missionaries, seek out a mysterious land to satiate their passion.

Thackaberry, the Brigham Young of Northeast Ohio theater, has loaded his wagon train with the area's most stalwart thespians. With script books and makeup kits in hand, they have headed to Akron, scouting the local bars, bordellos, and breweries for just the right mountain to place his Actors' Summit company. Thackaberry came upon the ideal promised land--the Masonic Temple at Mill and High streets.

This massive edifice was built in 1917 to house the rituals of the Masonic Order. The interior is carved entirely of oak, filled with massive purple velvet Tudor furniture, heirloom carpets, and enormous cabinets containing brocaded vestments from long-ago pageants. It all brings to mind the haunted hotel of The Shining, in that it seems to house generations of spirits, ready to spring out and reenact their falls from grace.

A virginal theater needs just the right play to accentuate its assets. The Price--which is set in the furniture-cluttered attic of a once-prosperous brownstone, steeped in a lost way of life and faded family rituals--makes an ideal melding of art and reality. The beautiful but aging artifacts of the Masonic Temple, including myriad old medals and faded photographs of past Masonic dignitaries, appear to mourn a lost civilization, as does the play.

Any Miller play is invariably a mournful experience: a rainy Sunday stroll through a deteriorating scrapbook. Past regrets are charted, and it's never quite easy to try to determine where the wrong turns were taken. The mantle of Death of a Salesman is not an easy one for a playwright to carry; it raises expectations. We expect thrilling object lessons learned at the knee of the best Sunday-school patriarch we've ever encountered. Miller is expected to whip us into moral shape.

If Salesman is a full-fledged symphony, The Price is a delicately constructed chamber piece. The time is 1967; two brothers who haven't seen each other in the sixteen years since their father's death reunite to sell off the furnishings which are the remnants of the family's once-abundant legacy.

One brother, a policeman, has managed to eke out an existence after quitting college to care for his once-wealthy but financially decimated father. The other, who refused to help beyond contributing $5 a month, has gone on to become a successful surgeon. The policeman has asked the surgeon to help dispose of the father's furniture, long moldering in the attic.

In Millerland, one can expect fascinating debates. Is it right, after a storm, to sacrifice your chances of advancement to save a drowning man? Or do you forge ahead without looking back? From Romulus and Remus to the Smothers Brothers, there persists the eternal theme of the weak and strong, the one who fulfills the expectations and the one who sacrifices his dreams to expediency.

Admittedly, there is little dramatized here; it all takes place after the storm. It's as if the Loman boys got together to rehash the damage sixteen years after father Willie's death. Yet, it is so beautifully constructed, it never loses momentum.

Miller behaves himself here: He never takes the stupefying high ground that mars many of his other works. He's at the top of his form, keeping things juicy and basted. He tosses in fascinating ambiguities. Neither brother is a prig; each has his story to tell.

There are as many surprises as in a good Agatha Christie whodunit, including nervous breakdowns, hidden money, and, best of all, the appearance of a perky 89-year-old used furniture buyer, the twinkling survivor of four wives and an Old Testament full of ups and downs. This character is Miller's own brand of dessert wine and might have hora-ed right off the pages of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Thackaberry pulls an Olivier by directing and starring. As the surgeon brother, wary and seeking reconciliation, he has an impeccable blend of high lama and used-car salesman. He manages to weave a passion play out of Miller's family-in-crisis minutiae.

The four-member cast is made up of the area's old-guard purist pilgrims. They dance a mesmerizing psychological tarantella on Robert Stegmiller's eerily beautiful set.

Morgan Lund and Paula Duesing, who have acted together on numerous occasions, seem to merge before the audience's eyes into Mike Nichols and Elaine May. A perfect entity, their every gesture--whether the caress of an old glove or the way Duesing enters a room clutching a piece of laundry--generates unvarnished truth. Lund tempers his trademark pantherish anger and flaxen sensuality with a heart-rending moral reticence built out of years of self-denial and sacrifice. Duesing, as the frustrated wife, seems to shrink before the audience's eyes with decades of anxiety. Smoky and careworn, she suggests a Studio One tragedienne.

As the furniture buyer, symbolically named Solomon, Glen Colerider is a frail, almost translucent life force with a borscht-belt sparkle--George Burns as painted by Michelangelo.

Overage adolescents cash in their IRAs to seek their lost youth at Disney World's high-priced gift shop, yet fortunate Cleveland theatergoers need only cross I-77 to find two hours of salvation at our latest greasepaint shrine.

The Price, through May 1 at the Masonic Temple, Sixth Floor Theater, 103 South High Street, Akron, 330-342-0800.

More by Keith A. Joseph

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