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How the set enhances the story in The Price
In the current Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's play The Price, a family's history is literally hanging over their heads.
But before we get to metaphors, let's start with the story: Running at the American Airlines Theatre in a production from Roundabout Theatre Company, the show is set in an attic filled with old, expensive furniture. There are massive tables, ornate dressers, a harp painted gold – all remnants of great wealth that was lost during the economic collapse of the 1920s and 30s. Now, however, it's 1968, and the house is being torn down to make way for a high rise. Before the wrecking ball swings, brothers Victor and Walter have to decide what to do with all this stuff, and their matter-of-fact conversations about appraisals and tax breaks quickly tear open a lifetime of wounds.
Thanks to Derek McLane's set, we might suspect these fights are coming before anyone says a word. Because the furniture in the attic isn't only on the floor: It's also hanging from the ceiling. There are rows and rows of chairs and tables hovering above Walter and Victor, as though their lost prosperity might crush them at any moment. How could anyone avoid the memories these heavy objects represent?
It matters, too, that the pieces look so purposeful in the air. The chairs are stacked neatly, and the tables are hung just so. "It's carefully stored," says McLane. "We took great pains to make it feel very orderly, not to make it feel haphazardly stacked or tossed up there. It's placed there with care, as if to suggest that its owner recognized its value or thought it had some value at the time it was stored. And it is sort of the family legacy."
The idea of Inherited value ripples through Miller's script. Victor (played by Mark Ruffalo) has spent his entire adult life in a rut, since he let a sense of obligation to his spiteful father keep him from pursuing his dreams. Just like he kept all the furniture, he held on to that poisoned love – not to mention his resentment for Walter (Tony Shalhoub), who left to become a successful doctor – as though it were a birthright.
You might think this makes McLane's design seem hopelessly oppressive. But between the furniture above and the furniture below, we see a strip of clouds and sky, with water towers rising all around. In fact, the attic doesn't have walls, so we can always see that the characters are surrounded by the wild blue yonder.
"I suppose if it was to be absolutely logical, the furniture would've gone from the floor all the way up to the ceiling," McLane says. "But that's where I took some poetic license so you could see the expansive space. [Director] Terry Kinney and I talked early on about finding a way to open it up and make it breathe a little bit more. We didn't want a three-walled set. We wanted to make it something that allowed your mind to expand a little bit as you listened to the play."
Based on his research, McLane thinks the playwright would likely approve of this approach. "Arthur Miller had said that he regretted the realism of the show's original production," he explains. "He wished it had had a more abstract or metaphorical design."
So if that skyline expands our minds, then where exactly does it take them? There are plenty of valid interpretations, but for McLane, there's a connection to the rest of America in 1968, when the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were affecting millions of people. "The play feels like it's touching on a moment of change in society," the designer says. "The building is about to be torn down. There's a sense of the building in a greater landscape where everything is shifting."
Top photo (left to right): Danny DeVito and Mark Ruffalo. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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