Arthur Miller’s The Price was contemporary at the time of its first performance – 1968 – and is still, despite the period staging (John Hodgkins), as challenging in its depiction of a family and a society in denial of the truth as it was when it won rave notices for its already famous author. “Everything has to be disposable,” declares Gregory Solomon (a pitch-perfect Ray Henwood), the octogenarian dealer who drivers much of the action of the play. “Because you see the main thing today is shopping.”
What Miller saw clearly in 1968 is what we have become today: people who no longer see salvation in religion or politics, but look for it in shopping malls. Nor did his prescience end there. One of the themes running through the play is that of choice, and the invention of self. “We invent ourselves to wipe out what we know,” successful surgeon Walter (a fine Christopher Brougham) tells his brother, Victor (a standout performance from Gavin Rutherford). Walter has convinced himself – how modern this sounds! – Victor sacrificed his career in order to look after their broken father, not because he was kinder, more humane, but because he chose that path. There’s a price to be paid for living a “real life”, he insists. In Victor’s case, that price was the abandonment of his dream of becoming a scientist in order to support his father, earning a living as a humble policeman.
Miller is too clever a playwright to make his story simply a struggle between the good son and the bad. The ambiguity that clouds the arguments both men put up clings most powerfully to Gregory, the enigmatic, compulsively cheerful dealer, whose price for the detritus of a life lived in the wake of the Great Depression gives the play its name. But prices, as Walter reminds Victor, are paid in many different ways, even if the inevitable end game is money and power. Standing against this – a faint voice at the end of the play – is Victor’s hitherto combative wife, Esther (Jude Gibson). If only, she says, mocking the words even as she utters them, there could be forgiveness for everyone.
Susan Wilson’s direction never puts a foot wrong. Every subtlety is teased out of a play that can seem wordy at times but is so packed with observations about the human condition, then and now, that we leave the theatre wanting more.
THE PRICE, by Arthur Miller, directed by Susan Wilson, Circa One, Wellington, until September 7.