Arthur Miller wrote a play while he was at the University of Michigan in 1936. It's never been performed but director Sean Turner has tracked down a copy in the University's archive and it is now receiving its first public airing at the Old Red Lion.
The play mirrors Miller's own family situation at the time: His father, a wealthy business man, had lost everything during the great depression and the family had fallen on hard times. No Villain opens with the Simon family waiting for the return of son Arty (Adam Harley) from University at their small home in Brooklyn. His mother Esther (Nesba Grenshaw) is anxious that something has happened on the long journey and her concerns are amplified by reports that Arty has become involved in Marxism. Abe, her husband, (David Bromley) tries to placate her as does younger son Ben (George Turvey). Ben has had to sacrifice his education to help his father in his factory. It is one of the many sacrifices the family has had to make.
The tension is only temporarily appeased when Arty finally steps through the door. As with Miller's more familiar, later work there is a clash of ideals. Abe's factory is about to go under for a second time because industrial strikes are stopping orders getting out. Ben shares sympathies with the strikers, recognising the merit in the Marxist philosophy his brother Arty believes in. Where the brothers differ is in whether they will put their beliefs before their family.
Both wrestle with this and for Arty in particular, it is agony. He sees the distress in his mother, how his beliefs are alienating him from his family but they are his beliefs and what make him who he is. Can he turn against his own conscience and his self?
Miller needs nuanced performances. It is easy to pick out the hysteria and heightened emotions and over play them but it is the moments in between which are more telling and the transitions to those moments if not done well can jar. There are some pacing issues with the production - at times it feels sluggish - but the cast do a pretty good job with the material and the tension builds nicely.
No Villain is fascinating to watch and pick out the germs of ideas, the shades of characters that Miller was later to go on an explore more fully. Knock off some of the sharp edges it shows a promising talent, a talent we are now so familiar with. If you want an insight into life for the young Arthur Miller then you can catch No Villain at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Angel until Jan 9 and it is an hour and 20 minutes long.