Arthur Miller

ArtsWatch Weekly: Confronting the great divides

America's battle with itself comes alive in a pair of plays, a book on the working-class tightrope, and a photo show about the persistent South

AS YOU MAY HAVE NOTICED DURING OUR RECENT IMPEACHMENT SPAT and other real or manufactured public outrages, we are living in deeply divided times. One of the roles of art is to look into such abysses and give them shape that either clarifies the issues or reveals them to be more confusing and complex than we believe. In times like these art is not simply decoration: It also can be, and likely should be, a relentless and unwaveringly human mirror. 

Jason Glick and Andrea White, caught in a Blind. Photo: Lindberg Media

Art often looks back to look forward. While watching Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat in its recently closed, knockout production by Profile Theatre, I felt the lurking presence of the late, great Arthur Miller in the hall. Nottage’s play, which deals with the economic crumbling of the American working class and the way such stresses also can reveal racial and other fault lines, suggests some of the underpinnings of populism’s hard turn to the right and left. It also feels like an updating and almost a reverse image of Miller’s 20th century social realism in the likes of All My Sons, a play that looks at the effects of economic skullduggery from the vantage of the owners, while Sweat considers its brutalizing effect on the workers.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: past imperfect, present tense

In the Northwest, images of horror and hope from the past and present. Plus a West Side story, a flamenco flourish, and a divine voice.

ARTSWATCH IS ABOUT ARTS AND CULTURE IN OREGON: It’s embedded in our name. But culture is a fluid thing, coming at us from all corners of the world, and, through our libraries and museums and musical notations, from the enduring fragments of previous times and places. It comes to us. We go to it. Everything mingles in the process. One of our number is on the nothern tip of the Olympic Peninsula right now, a ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, where depending on the weather she might be greeted on the shoreline by a bagpiper in a kilt (although the Unipiper remains a resolutely Portlandian attraction, rain or shine, sleet or snow). Another ArtsWatcher is working her way across Andalucia, taking hundreds of pictures as she goes. Our music editor is settling back into the gentle rains of the Pacific Northwest after a sojourn in Bali with some masters of the gamelan.  

Parmigianino, Antea, ca. 1535, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 33.8 inches, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 26, 2020.

On occasion we indulge in a quick trip north to Seattle, and in case you do the same, you might want to drop in on the Seattle Art Museum, where the exhibition Flesh & Blood: Masterpieces from the Capodimonte Museum opens today and hangs around through January 26. It time-travels through Renaissance and Baroque Europe, and includes 39 paintings and a single sculpture from the collections of the Naples museum.

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At Artists Rep, ‘The Price’ is right

Arthur Miller's old-fashioned American realist drama bridges the decades and makes itself unsettlingly at home in today's culture

Watching Artists Rep’s finely pitched new production of Arthur Miller’s play The Price is like listening to a classic piece of chamber music you haven’t heard in a long time: four voices, integrated yet distinct, rising and falling and weaving, sometimes in harmony, sometimes strikingly dissonant, each voice surging into the lead, then receding, in a constant interplay. It’s a welcome reminder of the beauties of the mid-20th century American realist theater, those works from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by the likes of Miller, Tennessee Williams (whose Suddenly, Last Summer has also just opened in town, at Shaking the Tree), Lillian Hellman, William Inge, the latecomer Edward Albee and the like, each drawing in his or her own way from the pattern set by Eugene O’Neill. As different from one another as they were alike, these writers nevertheless shared some crucial qualities. Shaped by the Great Depression and World War II, they were engaged socially, concerned with the links between private and public behavior: “Mendacity!,” Big Daddy’s roar in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, might have been a unifying cry. They believed in the lyrical and persuasive power of language. And they made well-crafted plays, dramas that were structured to seem inevitable both emotionally and theatrically.

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

Costa (left) and Elich, calculating values. Photo: Owen Carey

The Price, whose title is meant both literally and metaphorically, arrived a little later than Miller’s run of great plays, opening on Broadway in 1968. It lost that season’s Tony Award to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, perhaps signaling a shift in public appetite toward a brighter, more playful and irreverent style of show. Stoppard, Pinter, Shepard and others still knew their Greeks, who were essential to O’Neill and the post-O’Neill generation, but they were tipping toward postmodernism: rearranging the pieces, joking with the verities, dabbling in creative destruction. The Price still has a ’50s earnestness in its voice, that sense that every thought and action has intense moral significance. It’s a play of slightly before its time, and as I watched the four fine actors at Artists Rep I was aware that (a) I was watching a period piece, and (b) it was a thrilling experience. Good theater can fuse the past and present into a vital contemporary moment.

The play is something like a Bartók quartet, an immersion into intimate dissonance, in which clashing ideas are bound into an exciting tension tinged with sadness, and resolutions are fleeting but profound. It opens in a well-worn New York walkup apartment, stuffed with furniture from an earlier age (the set is by Jack O’Brien), the muted bleats of city traffic (sound by Sharath Patel) seeping in from the outside world. Victor Franz (Michael Elich), a lean and tired-looking New York cop, walks in, looks around, cranks an old Victrola, puts on a comedy record that consists of peals of laughter. He’s soon joined by his wife, Esther (Linda Alper), wearing a stylish dress suit that looks like one of Nancy Reagan’s (costumes by Alison Heryer) and an air of exasperation. We’ve dropped in on an old argument, a long-brewing disappointment; years of affection and regret underlie a conversation we know is intense, even if we’re not sure immediately what it’s all about. Soon enough, we learn it’s about money: at long last Victor’s getting ready to sell off the contents of his dead parents’ apartment, and Esther, who is tired of living on a policeman’s pay, dearly hopes he’ll push for a good price. She wants some nice things and freedom from worry. Victor, who believes he could have been a big man in science if he hadn’t left college to care for his father, wants his pride.

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Mendelson (left), Alper, Elich: all in the family. Photo: Owen Carey

Victor and Esther are joined by the booming brass presence of Gregory Solomon (Joseph Costa), an almost nonagenarian furniture appraiser and dealer, who wheezes up the stairway with an air of bumptious authority and a briefcase packed with snacks. Solomon knows the business; Solomon knows about people; Solomon wants to cut a deal. And just about when things are settled, in walks the fourth member of this dissonant quartet: Walter Franz (Michael Mendelson), Victor’s ultra-successful doctor brother, whom he hasn’t seen or spoken to in 16 years, and whom Victor blames for the way his life went sour. Walter has a deal to offer, too, a plan that would pad the price considerably.

Miller’s setup is expert, his balancing of the economic and emotional scales keen. Prices, as it turns out, aren’t always measured in coin, and a modest cost in capital terms might be a very steep one in morality and pride. Things get knotted up, and some things don’t show up on the balance sheet. From this point, it’s up to the director and actors to carry the play, and Artists Rep’s ensemble, directed sensitively by Adriana Baer, does it beautifully.

A huge amount of experience is on this stage, and the sum for the audience is an uncommon amount of pleasure: these are four veteran actors who’ve been around, and grown, and ripened well, and know how to burrow deeply inside a role and play it full. Elich carries a slump of anger and repressed pride to go with Victor’s genuine sense of righteousness. Alper is somehow sharp and soft at once, warm and capable and just about an inch from an explosion. Mendelson, who grows ever more graceful with age, is surprisingly embracing in what could be (but is definitely not here) a cool and curdling role. And Costa dances just this side of caricature as Solomon without ever crossing the line: a bit of a shaman, a bit of a snake-oil salesman, a bit of a Borscht Belt comic, a bit of a chastened and lonely ancient man, the unlikely and exuberant outsider straw that stirs this volatile family drink.

This is Victor’s story, in the end, his discoveries and decisions to be made, and as the play ends it’s uncertain what price he has and hasn’t paid; what’s he’s cost himself and what he’s gained. The composition concludes with more dissonance than resolution, and strangely, that feels right: something deep has happened. The questions hover, and do not settle. Victor, and Arthur Miller, and this production, ask: What matters? What is the truth? What should be done? In that old-fashioned and ever-contemporary American realist way, the questions linger long after the light fades, unanswered and unanswerable.

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The Price continues at Artists Rep through April 26. Ticket and schedule information are here.

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Witch hunts & fitting in: from Salem to Iran, the pressure to conform

'The Crucible' spurs examination of faith-based fear, group-think, and witch hunts

An Iranian-American girl, a gay man, and an ex-Seventh-day Adventist sit down for a chat at the Venetian Theater Bar.

The girl says, “When I visit my family in Iran, I dress in full hijab to stay out of trouble.”

“Depending where we travel, my partner and I pretend we’re just friends,” replies the gay man.

Meanwhile, the ex-SDA has ducked under their table, whispering, “I probably shouldn’t be seen in a bar or a theater, let alone BOTH!”*

Ba-dum, bum.

All kidding aside, this is the gist of a conversation I had last week with Bag & Baggage artistic director Scott Palmer and Hillsboro High School student actor/”Professional Development” program participant Melory Mirashrafi (pictured, lower left) at a rehearsal of The Crucible, which opens tomorrow. And I think what we were all getting at was that even though the original Salem witch trials have slipped into the mists of history, each of us has had a taste of the kind of societal scrutiny that (unfortunately) keeps the witch hunt premise fresh. The need to conform, and the threat of consequences if you don’t, is everywhere.

photo credit: Casey Campbell

photo credit: Casey Campbell

Crucible playwright Arthur Miller most certainly got his dose of the poison in 1947 when he was accused of being a communist and called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. When he refused to name his alleged fellow “reds,” he was held in contempt of Congress.

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