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The Heart's High Price

Deep Dish's valuable production explores contemporary interpersonal economics, while Peace goes bump in the night


A confession: Mathematics was always my worst subject. Perhaps that's why I take no comfort at all in the expanding role it's being given in the ethical dilemmas of our day.

While Magdalena Santillan and Melecio Huerta mourn the death of their daughter, Jesica, legislators seek to limit the amount of money that can be paid to compensate human pain and suffering in medical malpractice lawsuits. A growing number of activists view the lives, the land and the fruits of forced labor taken from Native Americans, African Americans and the victims of mid-century German labor camps, and conclude that somewhere, someone must pay in reparations for past injustices.

Meanwhile, a long-standing subtraction game continues in the Palestinian and Israeli territories. On a massive set of scales, gloved hands remove a few human lives, buildings and acres of land from one side. Everyone studies--and then disagrees--on where the needle moves as a result. Thus another pair of hands takes a quantity from the other side, which necessitates a subsequent deduction, and one after that, and another one, ad infinitum.

It's an obscure moral calculus, an algebra of speculative ethics that suggests differing atrocities can somehow compete, be quantified, compared--and evened out. By snuffing out a life here, a life there, the process promises that the amount of misery on both sides can finally be made equivalent, and an equilibrium achieved which presumably has some relationship with justice.

On second thought, perhaps the mechanism is not so ambiguous. One of its axioms dates at least as far back as the Torah, the Koran and the Old Testament. "Eye for eye," all three read, "tooth for tooth," in passages too many people have historically interpreted as some divinely ordained rate of exchange, instead of a warning that no profit can come of violence.

Elsewhere, in the present day, corporations offer the fool's bargain of money in exchange for lost families, lost lives, lost parts of bodies, lost time and lost possibilities. In this fashion, the value of human life in Bhopal, in a South African AIDS ward and in commercial air transit has been reduced to a matter of economics. Ironically, we're all significantly poorer as a result.

These factors are what makes Arthur Miller's well-named drama The Price such a timely and compelling work. In the present era, this 1969 play clearly qualifies more as a protest against economics than it can plausibly be termed a work against war. The moment you're able to actually put a price on a number of things in this world, Miller seems to note, they've already lost their most intrinsic value.

This certainly applies to the old furniture in the attic apartment where we first meet estranged brothers Walter and Victor Franz, and Victor's wife, Esther. We learn that the apartment isn't only Victor's last childhood home, it's also the site of reduced circumstances for his well-to-do New York family wiped out during the Crash of 1929.

Since then, Walter and Victor have gone their separate ways; Walter as a successful doctor, Victor, less successful as a patrolman who should have retired three years earlier. The prospect of their old home being torn down brings the two back under the same roof for the first time in years, to dispose of their old furniture. The circumstance also provides the opportunity to take care of some long-standing open business between the two.

Estimating the true value of antique furniture proves a metaphor for three characters struggling to determine exactly what their past with one another is worth. What price has each paid to pursue their careers? What's the true value of their relationships with one another--and what has each cost them, over the years? More sobering, what does each believe the other owes them at this late hour? In what currency can such debts be paid?

These are the questions a trio of gifted actors explore on Rob Hamilton's cluttered set. But before arriving there, it bears noting that Deep Dish's new location for this production constitutes something of a coup de theatre in itself.

An antique furniture store called Branching Out actually serves as the lobby for The Price. One enters the theater by going through a door in the back of the showroom, into a space which looks for all the world like the backroom of an antiques store--because that's exactly what it is. To leave the theater at intermission and the end, one had to walk through a showroom filled with price-tagged objects much like those seen on stage. The mix provided enough of an eerie, mercantile postscript to make shoppers consider the possible stories behind items surrounding them on the sales floor.

While Victor may be no expert on aging furniture, there's no harder-nosed negotiator when it comes to other, more precious and intangible commodities like forgiveness and loyalty. Actor Bob Bell hits a series of believable, appealing notes early on as Esther's irascible but likable husband. Later, the gloves come off as a matrix of hard-boiled resentment, pride and distrust makes Victor not just question, but grill his brother and his wife. After Victor's 28 years on the beat, everyone remains eternally under suspicion.

Under Paul Frellick's direction, Bell's chemistry with Marcia Edmundson as Esther is impressive. In Edmundson's capable hands, Esther is a woman running out of options, actively wondering if her present and future with Victor is exactly what she's bargained for.

Tom Marriott as Walter walks on the eggshells of his character's past, looking for emotional tripwires as Walter tries to close the distance between his brother and himself.

It's been some time since I saw a group of characters this desperate to renegotiate a deal with each other--or as fundamentally suspicious of the implications of that deal. Of course, the economics of the situation argue against trusting anyone. We ultimately see if any of these characters is able to break through to another way of relating to other human beings.

While the negotiations go on a touch longer than we might wish, Alan Criswell provides comic relief--and, occasionally, a note of grounding--to the proceedings as Mr. Solomon, an ancient appraiser who might or might not buy the brothers' furniture.

Go anyway. With acting this good, and a script as stringent in its examination of our potential for emotional bankruptcy, you owe it to yourself to see The Price.

There's more to Kenny Gannon's spooky play Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep than just an homage to teen slasher films. Granted, this atmospheric thrill ride--yes, one of the season's guiltier pleasures--trades as much on urban legends and horror film clichés as it does on Roman Pearah's delicious impressions of Bill Clinton and Hannibal Lecter, and Sonya Drum's creepy, run-down boarding house set.

But what gives Sleep more class than the genre it apes is its dead reckoning of Southern ultra-fundamentalism, circa 1972--a religion itself steeped in spiritual fear. We watch it circumscribe the small lives of Theodore and Mildred, two neighbors of medium intelligence who work at the Piggly-Wiggly. They part ways after a dinner date (with their Sunday School class), whereupon we see exactly the degree to which holy terror occupies the center of Theodore's life. The poignancy of this initial scene hits the truest notes of the play, just before giving way to something literally darker on the Leggett Theater stage.

Comparatively speaking, the rest of the show plays the premise for chill bumps and laughs. Three murders seem destined to occur in this room, on Jan. 24 in different years. The evil focuses on a closet facing the audience at center stage. Its door opens and closes of its own volition, and things lurk in the shadows of Paul Marsland's evocative lights--which go completely out, of course, on more than one occasion.

Gannon's sense of suspense reminds us of the certain knowledge we all had in childhood--that something was in the darkness with us. Sure, the ending exposition's problematic, the intestinal jokes don't add much, and weird landlady Ginger is basically a schizo paint-by-numbers job. Still, the dreamy payoff at the end left us not too far from heaven, and the best of what came before made me wonder how scary an entire play exploring the world of the first scene might wind up being.

Just a thought for Gannon to sleep on. If possible. EndBlock

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