Long before Willy Loman, the tragic hero of “Death of a Salesman," there was Abe Simon, a struggling garment manufacturer trying to hold his family together as his company teeters on collapse.
It’s familiar Arthur Miller territory. More important, it’s the original Arthur Miller territory. Abe Simon is the protagonist of “No Villain,” Miller’s first play, written in 1936 when he was 21 and attending the University of Michigan. Discovered a few years ago by British director Sean Turner, who did the play in London in 2015, it will make its U.S. premiere at Manes Studio Theatre in Lindenhurst on Jan. 31 and run through Feb. 16.
“It’s not ‘Death of a Salesman,’ it’s not ‘All My Sons,’ ” says David Dubin, the theater's executive artistic director, who was intrigued when he read about the London production. But, he notes, there are shades of those masterworks in this early piece, as is the nascent genius of a man who would become one of America’s most treasured playwrights.
Described by Miller in his 1987 autobiography “Timebends: A Life” as “the most autobiographical work I would ever write,” the play focuses on Abe’s futile efforts to keep his company going during a crippling strike. Ultimately, it’s “about a family,” says Dubin, “the father who represents the business world and the sons who are disillusioned by it.”
From crooner to playwright
When he wrote the play, according to Turner, Miller had run out of money, but had little thought of a career as a playwright. “He was more likely to be crooning with the expressed ambition of becoming the next Bing Crosby,” Turner wrote in a 2015 essay for The Huffington Post. He wrote the play hoping to win the Avery Hopwood Award for creative writing at the university. The $250 prize, a princely sum in that era, would have been significant to the Miller family, which was caught up in the Great Depression of the early ‘30s. (And, yes, he won.)
In a 2015 interview with ThisWeek London, Turner said he became interested in the play after reading about it in “Timebends,” though it took him 18 months to find a typed manuscript gathering dust in the University of Michigan library. Why it was never produced is a mystery, though Dubin feels it was Miller’s intention. “He didn’t want it done in his lifetime,” says Dubin, most likely because one of the brothers in the play becomes involved with the Communist party.
“After the trouble Miller got into himself,“ says Dubin, referring to the playwright’s eventual appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, “he didn’t want to deal with the topic of communism.” Later plays like “A View From the Bridge” and “The Crucible” certainly touched on the topic.
While this is far from Miller’s most polished work, the cast feels the pressure of what Dubin calls a “momentous occasion.” Gary Milenko, who plays Abe, said during a break in rehearsal that he didn’t even bother to read the script when Dubin offered him the part. Once he started working on the show, he said he found the character quite relatable. “My father had a business, he had good years, bad years,” he said.
Gayle Merzer Behrens, who plays Abe’s wife, Esther, is trying not to get caught up in the magnitude of the debut. “I try not to really think about it or to obligate myself to any of that,” she says. Behrens talks about keeping her performance within the context of the play. “Abe portrays a real man’s struggle,” she says, “and life does not always go well … it has to be real and personal, otherwise I don’t think the audience gets as involved.“
Still, there are moments when the importance of the production hits her. “It’s always exciting originating a role,” she says. “But originating a role in an Arthur Miller play, when do you get a chance to do that?”
Milenko puts it simply: “I’m excited about it, I feel honored to be part of it.”
What to expect
Both Turner and Dubin acknowledge that audiences might be somewhat wary of this play. “Very few playwrights get it right the first time,” Turner told ThisWeek London. “Sometimes lost plays are lost for a reason.”
But Dubin believes audiences — even those who “don’t know from Miller” — will find it entertaining. And beyond the opportunity to see where the Miller legacy started, Dubin hopes the audience will come away with an understanding of the issues that led him to write it, especially when thinking about the somewhat ambiguous ending that suggests both brothers may turn to Communism.
Not that we suggest people take up Communism, says Dubin, but “I want them to understand why some people did opt for that … why so many people were drawn to it.” Dubin’s hope is that “people wake up the next morning thinking a little differently” about what else they might have dismissed out of hand.
“The point of theater is to make you think about the issues in your life," he says, “and perhaps wake up a little bothered by things the next day. I think that’s the best thing a play can do.”
WHAT “No Villain” by Arthur Miller
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Jan. 31-Feb. 1 and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 2, through Feb. 16, Manes Studio Theatre, 141 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst
INFO $27; 631-226-8400, studiotheatreli.com