Directed by Meg Roe, designed with imaginative economy by Camellia Koo (set), Kevin Lamotte (lighting), and Alessandro Juliani (music and sound), and performed by an excellent cast, Will Eno’s Middletown is thought-provoking and deeply moving. What is it about? Pain, love, and death. Loneliness and joy. Violence and gentleness. Missed connections. The banal and the surreal. The whole damned business, dreaminess, and melancholy of life. Eno probably takes his inspiration from Thornton Wilder’s benign Our Town, and there are several clear similarities between the two plays. Both tales have slices of real life, and both have a prologue: Wilder’s stage-manager is a casual host; Eno’s Public Speaker (different actors play him differently on different nights) is more quizzical, assertive, fundamentally compassionate yet provocative. “Bloated on life, gorged on words,” he presents both real and dream life, populated by emotionally or spiritually injured people. Both plays use mime, symbolic settings, and abstracted characters, but this is probably where the similarities end.
Wilder’s classic shows a palpable human comedy, tracing generations, cutting across childhood, youth, maturity, and old age in a clearly demarcated Grover’s Corner, near New Hampshire. Eno’s contemporary anatomy is of a generalized community rather than a specific geography. Indeed, this point is established in the prologue, where members of the cast draw a map on the gleaming floor, mottled with small stars. Wilder’s classic begins at the beginning of a typical day and carries us into a graveyard and an after-life, whereas Eno starts in the middle of something that, because it knows no ending, cannot establish where that middle is. Middletown is generally quiet, pedestrian, and with a vague history. It may well be the middle earth between outer space (there is a hauntingly beautiful episode of an astronaut floating all alone in the heavens) and the grave.
Eno’s characters are prone to doing weird things—not in any spectacular way but, perhaps, as a result of human nature’s urge to figure things out. His presentational mode is anti-naturalistic, with characters sometimes breaking through the imaginary fourth wall to address the audience. Props (such as windows, stools, a bench, kitchen sink, hospital beds, etc) are brought on and carried off by the actors, who sometimes sit in the audience as if eavesdropping on the action. Indeed, the text is purposefully self-reflexive, meditative, and interrogative—the better to mirror the characters’ curiosities. This makes for a contextual field rather than a clear through-line, but this is part of the rich texture. And director Meg Roe serves up a feast for the eye and ear, with some stunning visual surprises (the astronaut sequence, for example, wonderfully lit as if in an eternal galaxy) and enticing surrealism (the Mechanic serving as a parody angel—more of doom than salvation, though his intended audience of children might not know the difference).
Eno’s cross-section of characters includes a cop (Benedict Campbell), his landscaper brother-in-law (Peter Millard), a librarian (Tara Rosling), tour guide (Sara Topham), tourists (Millard and Claire Jullien), a male and female doctor (Karl Ang and Fiona Byrne), radio hosts (Ang and Natasha Mumba), janitor (Kristopher Bowman), mechanic (Jeff Meadows), a woman on a date (Jullien), and a man (John Dodge) and woman (Mary Swanson) who accidentally meet and have accidental destinies. The central pair, John (Gray Powell) and Mary (Moya O’Connell), have emblematic surnames: his portending a man drifting through life but intent on finding existential gravity beyond his psychological fear; and hers signifying an essential gracefulness of bearing, manner, and feeling. Both are essentially lonely beings. Mary, newly arrived and pregnant, has a husband forever absent from significant moments in her life, is left to her own lonely ache for companionship and love, while John, subject to anxiety attacks, makes desperate attempts to distance himself from emotional pain and devastation. The pair makes gentle, loving contact, but no romance blossoms to fruition. But where John is ultimately doomed, Mary is the maternal source of new life.
The cast is beyond reproach, with each player bringing each role (sometimes two or more in each case) to vivid life with sharply observed character traits. Comedy comes to the fore in many instances, but ultimately the play catches us by surprise, making us quiver with sharp recognition of our all too human foibles and frailties. And it is because the cast has Gray Powell as its quaking eccentric, its flawed anti-hero, its emotional desperado and because it has beautifully simple, unaffected Moya O’Connell as its lonely romantic, with all this remarkable actress’s humanist antennae activated, that the play achieves rare heights of soul-shaking truth without ever leaving earth. When Powell’s John, on his clinically morbid deathbed, begs O’Connell’s Mary to hug him, and she responds with direct tender empathy and sensitivity, be prepared to feel a lump in the throat, a catch in the heart. This is not just good acting; it is the best acting because all artificial filters are dropped, and nothing but naked truth is allowed to radiate from the very core of each character.
Like Eda Holmes’s exceptionally brilliant version last season of Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, Meg Roe’s radiant production of Middletown deserves not only a main stage revival but a well-rendered film rendering. Why are we so carelessly casual about our national theatrical treasures?
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