The Cost of Illusions

by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & e're all manipulators, every one of us -- and sometimes it's easier to just go on allowing yourself to be manipulated by others than it is to admit that you've been a sucker all along.

In addition, memory plays its tricks: If we keep picking at our emotional scabs, sometimes long-held assumptions prove to be nothing but dust.

Sorry to start with heavy matters, but Interplayers' production of Arthur Miller's The Price (through April 21) is a well-acted and thought-provoking show -- you can't just walk out and start making small talk.

Despite a long first-act set-up and a talky, overextended confrontation scene (the entire second act, which stretches the evening to two and a half hours), director Reed McColm's production probes the way we value self-sacrifice, financial success, learned helplessness, self-assertiveness and more.

And despite the usually good and sometimes phenomenal acting going on here -- and its own talkiness -- the real star of the evening is Miller's 1968 script. From the naturalistic exposition to the way the show's comedian conceals wisdom inside his joking, from the ebb and flow of conversations that are clearly uncovering old resentments to the final happy/sad image reflecting the play's motifs of manipulation and loss, The Price lays bare the kind of costs we all pay in achieving what we think we need at the expense of what we really yearn for.

After a 16-year estrangement, two middle-aged brothers -- a successful physician and a beat cop -- meet to arrange the selling-off of their family possessions. Their father had died (not coincidentally, 16 years earlier), elderly and defeated, having lost everything in the Depression. The cop's wife and an elderly appraiser of used furniture complete the cast of characters.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s the police sergeant -- the responsible one, the one who sacrificed so much -- Maynard Villers embodies moral authority while being smart enough to keep his character's outrage in check so that there's something left for a second-act payoff. With hands on hips and belly protruding over his gun belt, Villers throws his literal weight around an attic (strewn with antiques by Mary Engeldinger and Esta Rosevear) while still maintaining a kind of soft-spoken gentleness. Villers is stolid, resistant to change, but always holding his suspicions (things that he thinks he knows and holds dear) in reserve.

As a wife who wants to escape being saddled with a cop's lifestyle and sees the estate sale as a ticket to happiness, Maria Caprile seems better at conveying Esther's depression than her resentments and anger. With downcast looks and her gray hair in a tight bun, Caprile is quite good at portraying wifely disappointments. During some of the yelling confrontations, however, her high-pitched and nasal voice comes off as screechy-strident rather than filled with not-gonna-take-it-anymore defiance.

As the older brother and successful man of medicine, Terry E. Snead looks dapper in a dark blue suit. It's a credit to Snead that Walter's second-act earnestness and moral reformation seem genuine even though we've already heard for an hour from his brother Victor what a ne'er-do-well Walter was and is. Snead has to convince us that the vision of a man and the era he comes to represent (Franz pere and the Depression) can be seen in another light altogether, and he succeeds.

But this show really takes off with the entrance of McColm as Gregory Solomon, the 89-year-old Russian expatriate with a still-curious mind, a surprising background and a nose for appraising furniture and wheedling his way toward an advantageous price. (In typical style, Miller's script doesn't let us forget that all kinds of things have their price. You can hear the audience hush for the big lines.)

With grayed and stringy hair, with palsied hands fumbling over a cane and a notebook, his eyes suddenly goggling behind his spectacles whenever a beloved memory -- or the prospect of finagling a great deal -- comes over him, McColm creates a complete portrait of the ex-acrobat who's now running rings around potential customers.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & nterplayers may have a talky, overlong, not-quite-up-to-tragic-intensity production going on -- but it's presenting an unjustly underappreciated American classic that arrives at a thought-provoking conclusion in unexpected ways. Maybe the sparse opening-night house (only 20 percent full) suggests that the Miller name doesn't conjure the respect it once did. But McColm's production of The Price deserves to be seen by people who care about the kind of theater that provokes conversations and pierces assumptions. As we near the end of the theater season, it's Interplayers' best show thus far.