Arthur Miller Explores the Cost of Our Past in <em>The Price</em>

Arthur Miller Explores the Cost of Our Past in The Price

In Arthur Miller’s engrossing The Price, two brothers who have been estranged for the past 16 years confront their family history when they finally meet to dispose of the furniture accumulated in their deceased father’s apartment.

The Price has been my passion project for a very long time,” says Terry Kinney, who directs Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, Jessica Hecht, and Danny DeVito in the Roundabout Theatre Company revival of Miller’s drama, which is now playing on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre.
“I found it to be such an important play ever since I read it in high school, so I followed it around a little bit my entire career,” Kinney explains. “About 10 years ago, I asked Rebecca Miller [the late playwright’s daughter and a guardian of the Miller estate] if I could attach myself to it; during that 10-year stretch, it came and went and then, very happily for me, it ended up with the Roundabout.” This current revival marks the fourth on Broadway since The Price originally debuted in 1968.

At the start of the play we meet Victor (Ruffalo) and his wife Esther (Hecht). Victor has sacrificed his ambitions so he could look after his widowed father and has ended up a run-of-the-mill policeman, whereas his brother Walter (Shalhoub), who barely helped out with supporting his father, is now a successful surgeon.  Their past resentments are not forgotten and the simmering family tensions are witnessed by his disapproving wife, and Solomon, an 89 year-old furniture dealer (DeVito) who has been hired to appraise the value of the contents in the room.

“Society is always crushing people in Miller’s plays and they don’t seem to have a lot of choice,” observes Kinney, citing the Pulitzer Prize–wining playwright’s best-known works: Death of a Salesman, as well as A View From the Bridge and The Crucible, which both received triumphant revivals last season on Broadway. The Price is different, he notes. “This play exists in the gray area where there are two sides to everything; people have made choices in their lives and they need to live by them. And also, everybody has a past but they can’t speak the truth about that past, or even remember it accurately. And so it keeps returning.” Noting that the play was written in 1967 — a period of social turmoil and escalating conflict in Vietnam — Kinney adds, “I found that Miller was writing about an America that was going to be in a perpetual war because people couldn’t remember the mistakes of their past, or they denied them.”

“Although he never acknowledged it, I think the play is also Miller’s most intimate work,” the director continues. “I think it has to have some personal attachment to his life.” Just like the deceased father in the play, Miller’s own father was broken by the financial crash of 1929; his mother had to pawn her jewelry to make ends meet. And like the protagonist in the play, Miller too had an elder brother. But, Kinney adds, Miller was not trying to tell his own story with The Price. Rather, as Miller himself reported decades after he wrote the play, he wanted to respond to the theater of the late 1960s. “The avant-garde theater presented so many prototypes and symbols that the characters didn’t have a past. So Miller thought that he would try something different in that he would place it in a present that is mired in a conflicted past,” Kinney explains. “Everything in the play has already happened, and now the characters are throwing into the center of the room their different versions of it. And out of that, the truth happens.”

“The music of this play is in the language,” Kinney continues. “His characters are not only talking about what they actually feel — sometimes they are avoiding that, and sometimes they are talking all around it. So you have to track those arguments very carefully. The challenge [directing this work] is that you really have to measure this play out, to make sure that it doesn’t become a pitched battle too soon. We are trying to be careful to know why something is right from each character’s point of view. It’s how they witnessed and experienced the events and they have been carrying this with them; it changed them for better or worse. Now they have come back in order to testify to that. They went away feeling unloved, and what I think they discover instead is that they have a lot of love that couldn’t find purchase.”

In the play, the old dealer (a memorable character who Miller said he most enjoyed writing because he was able to draw from his early memories of the Yiddish and vaudeville theater) says in his heavy Yiddish-Russian accent, “The price of used furniture is nothing but a viewpoint, and if you wouldn’t understand that viewpoint, is impossible to understand the price.” Kinney observes that the play’s title extends beyond the literal price the dealer is going to offer for the furniture. “I think there is the context of what our lives are worth and what it costs us to live it. Do we have a choice, and what is the price of that choice? But beyond that are the scars — people carry them for so long, they become their scars. Here they are ensconced in these painful events that formed them; that’s the actual price. Who do we become if we make a choice to walk forward from it, put it behind us, remember what helps us, and leave the rest — leave it in the room, sell it?”

Kinney began his career as an actor (he cofounded Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company) and is best known for his performances in the HBO series Oz. He still works in movies and television, but he hasn’t acted on stage for two decades. “I love acting in front of a camera,” he says, “but I have stage fright, which I developed when I was doing Buried Child [on Broadway in 1996], and I have never really jumped back in the water.” But he acknowledges that his past experience comes in handy as a director. (His last production on Broadway was Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty.) “This play is very hard on actors,” he explains. “Their psyches are so beat-up and you try massage that into a performance, to use it but at the same time not damage an actor’s soul. This play is a cold war turning into a hot war, and to have that, you have to make it safe for people to do it. And you do that with encouragement and compassion.”

Although The Price was very much a product of the year in which Miller wrote it, Kinney says he doesn’t treat the play like a museum piece. “Can you imagine Miller’s surprise when 1968 happened? We went from two assassinations, the Chicago Democratic Convention … I think 2017 is the ultimate conjoining of the two periods,” he notes. “I hope it turns out a little differently than it did, but, you know, the left is eating itself and the right has snuck in through the back door and has taken charge again.” The director says he hopes that his production will feel “very present” and that audiences will find in it something that is resonant with their lives today. “All of us carry these stories, which are our lives. And we don’t live alone on the planet. When we come in contact with other stories, we try to suss out what is true about that. That is something we all struggle with every day, being a human being and moving forward. I hope that people find at the end some piece of that — the idea of moving forward.”

Arthur Miller’s The Price is currently playing at the American Airlines Theatre. Opening night is set for March 16.