The Weight of the Past

There's something about Arthur Miller I don't trust. It's not his fault. But it's hard not to rebel when elders present the author of The Crucible and Death of a Salesman as some sort of Isaiah, lionizing him as much for his courageous and sexy personal life as for his professional one, to the point where it's difficult to distinguish between the two. (Particularly annoying is the fact that everyone still thinks he's a stud for bagging Marilyn.)

On the other hand, we shouldn't blame Miller for his devotees' excesses. To judge him without the distortions of celebrity, we've got to forget Arthur Miller-as-idol when we sit down to watch his plays. Forget that he was blacklisted; forget Marilyn; forget what a charming figure he is, still going strong at 82. The play's the thing.

In this case, the play is The Price, written in 1968, about two middle-aged brothers who meet after a 16-year separation to sell their parents' opulent furniture, stored in the attic of the family's old brownstone. Dealing with those stubborn ghosts of the Great Depression--disillusionment, greed, family decay--still resonates in these more subtly depressed days. And while it dredges the emotional lake for both characters and audience, The Price also pulls us down in an overlong, ultimately snoozy second act.

Walter Franz (Greg Mullavey) and his brother Victor (Alan Feinstein) come from a wealthy New York family destroyed by the Crash of '29. Mother died of something or other; Dad went into a permanent funk. Walter, determined not to sink, leaves home, finishes med school, and becomes a famous surgeon. He offers no help to brother Victor, who feels obligated to give up school and join the police force to keep their father fed. Their choices, and their excuses for them, rise to the surface as they weigh the price of the Franz family's last remnants: its furniture.

That furniture is a rich, if obvious metaphor, one that's taken to fantastical extremes by Fran Thompson's set in the Guthrie's production: Nightmare-sized cupboards and chests crowd the back wall, hovering at angles as if about to squash both actors and audience. While it makes its point, the whole effect is slightly Disney-esque; I half expected the bulging armoire to start singing in baritone to the buffet. We're saved from the weight of the furniture, however--and of the brothers' past--by what is probably Miller's most lovable character ever: the furniture dealer Gregory Solomon, played brilliantly by David Margulies. Solomon is so old he's beyond fearing the past, or trying to bury its every skeleton. Margulies has a near-perfect Russian-Jewish accent that rides in total sympathy with Miller's lovingly written dialogue. The family's furniture would make the average person nervous "because he knows it's never gonna break ...," he says. "For instance, you take this table. Listen! You can't move it. A man sits down to such a table he knows not only he's married, he's got to stay married--there is no more possibilities."

The other actors don't have nearly as joyful a task: None of their characters is likable. We're not sure whether Mullavey quite trusts Walter--he plays him as a slick character, albeit a somewhat awkward one, with persistent gestures that ultimately look like an attempt to make Walter's lines more convincing. Still, he and Feinstein rise to the central challenge of portraying two half-souls who've lived half-lives: Walter, the self-serving, ambitious one who's cut off everyone else, and Victor, who's played the sacrificial hero to hold things together. As Walter admits in a poignant moment, they're two halves of one person, unable to go forward without connecting.

But for all his revelations and talk of connection, Miller betrays his own ideals: He spirals around--but never quite reaches--the heart of the matter between the two brothers. And because the play has no central viewpoint, shifting constantly between three decidedly male perspectives, it's impossible to ever feel really connected with any one. In fact, he writes the play's female figures nearly off the page. The memory of the men's mother is merely symbolic; whatever effect she had on them is lost next to their father's ghost, which looms large. And Brenda Wehle, as Victor's wife Esther, is saddled with an insultingly two-dimensional role; for most of the play, I didn't buy her performance--she seemed to be mouthing the lines with all the appropriate emphasis and no gut instinct, and I can't entirely blame her. While the two men wrestle forth endless confessions and accusations, she fades, as I did, wondering exactly whose world Miller was trying to evoke up there. Virginia Woolf once wrote that the creative genius must have an androgynous mind--it would seem that this is most crucial for playwrights and novelists. (I believe Shakespeare was Woolf's model.) If we judge Arthur Miller on the basis of The Price, he just doesn't cut it.

The Price continues at Guthrie Theater through March 29.

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