There’s usually good reason why renowned writers have known but unpublished early works. They hone their craft by writing, usually badly at first, and then have a major breakthrough after they have been writing for some time. Expecting this to be the case with Arthur Miller’s world premiere of the unpublished No Villain, the play proved to be surprisingly good. Miller’s autobiographical one act was written for a playwriting competition when the 20-year-old undergraduate at the University of Michigan was on the verge of leaving due to his family’s losses during the Great Depression. It was in the university’s archives that director Sean Turner found the manuscript mentioned in Miller’s memoirs, dashed off with the desperate hope of saving his Journalism degree. A theatrical and historical relic, the script isn’t a particularly polished affair but brims with youthful enthusiasm, political activism, and familial conflict that hints at the greatness to come in later works like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.
From beginning to end, tension dominates this story set in 1936 New York City during the strikes that paralysed the garment district and bankrupted businesses barely holding on to their survival. Father Abe Simon (David Bromley) has no sympathy or understanding for the strikers or his sons’ recent discovery and devotion to the new political system taking over the East, Communism. Arnold (Adam Harley) is a thinly veiled Miller who at the beginning of the play returns from Michigan for the holidays. Refusing to help his father (David Bromley) at the shop because it would compromise his principles, older brother Ben (George Turvey) is more practical. The action largely centres around these three men, but the strain of the Depression also shows in their interactions with their mother (Nesba Crenshaw), sister Maxine (Helen Coles) and grandfather (Kenneth Jay).
Focused, emotionally endowed performances in heightened realism and moments of good dialogue generate exquisite set piece scenes, but the overall plot structure and storyline is a bit loose, and the politics are so blatant that it’s agitprop. This is not a subtle play, but it’s certainly not poorly made. The story is a microcosmic representation of Big Issues but it’s clear that this is real life replicated on stage rather than pure fiction. There’s a lot of preaching and arguing and threats, but the actors truthfully capture this almost-constant tension within the family, and these moments are plentiful. Like a baby Death of a Salesman, we see the idealism and father-son relationships that help make Miller one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century.
Max Dorey’s set and Natalie Pryce’s costumes contribute detail and further authenticity to the production. Stylistically, this is a great example of early 20th century American theatre (but with accents from different parts of the US in one family) made popular by Clurman, Adler, Meisner and the rest of the Group Theatre in the 1920s and 30s. Turner captures this performance style well and in combination with the factual/biographical nature of the script, it feels like the audience is watching a moment of history brought to life.
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