You know you are in for an interesting experience when you are welcomed into the world of Middletown by a Public Speaker who tries to encompass all of humanity in all its forms through an exhaustive monologue that is wildly entertaining while ultimately insufficient to the task. It is this struggle to capture the uncapturable, to verbalize the ineffable experience of being a finite human in an infinite universe, to encapsulate the sacred, scary, mundane journey between the mysteries of birth and death, that Will Eno grapples with in his play.
Mr. Eno’s Middletown, a play set in the middle of America, in the middle of a typical small town, in the middle of the characters’ lives, is often compared to Thorton Wilder’s Our Town. Both plays take as their subjects the ordinary life events of an average town, and set them within the context of infinity. Both plays break the fourth wall and have characters speak directly to the audience. But while Wilder celebrates humanity’s place within the macrocosm, Eno struggles with the essential inconsequence of human existence. His main characters are rudderless, lost in the infinite distances of the universe, searching for meaning and connection they cannot find.
This is a play for play lovers. It does what theater does best; it revels in language. It throws you off guard with comedy, lures you into a sense of security with commonplaces, and then “whoosh, clank!” it twists, and you find yourself in the middle of metaphysical inquiry.
Little Lake Theatre Company’s production of Middletown is a solid effort. It is an engaging show that leads you through the lives of its characters with quiet good humor.
In the spirit of Our Town, the production uses minimal set pieces to create multiple locations, viewed simultaneously by the audience. Director Ponny Conomos Jahn is quite successful in her staging in-the-round (or rectangle, in this case), creating pleasant stage pictures, and making the most out of minimal settings.
The design is utilitarian, serving the basic, practical needs of the staging, without adding to the overall experience with a deliberate aesthetic point of view in and of itself.
The large acting ensemble is competent, and, except in a few minor cases, performances are polished and even. The three leads – Eric Leslie as John Dodge, Mary Meyer as Mary Swanson, and Bill Lyon as Mechanic are solid and likable. They are supported most notably by the funny Danette Marie Levers and Tom Protulipac as Tourists (among other roles) and the charming, relaxed presence of Charlotte Sonne as Librarian and Jonathan Wilson as Cop.
The pacing of the show needs some improvement. This is a long production, over 2 1/2 hours with one intermission. A quicker pace for both the scenes and the scene changes would keep the energy of the company and the audience from flagging.
There was one major problem I had with the production – the intermittent use of Native American influences. This is a playwriting problem first and foremost, that must necessarily become a production problem. There are several moments in the script where characters refer to the Chawkmawg Indians (couldn’t find anything on the web indicating this was a real native tribe – those who know more than me, please let me know) who first lived on the land now occupied by Middletown. The Librarian reads the audience a native medicine story. There’s a dream catcher used as a character totem in at least two scenes. The Mechanic does a Native American-inspired medicine dance near the end of the play.
All of these moments felt inauthentic to me, superfluous and distracting to the main enquiry of the play. What is the playwright trying to say? In such a very middle-American (and almost exclusively white in this production) town, how do these side trips into Native American symbolism fit into the journey of this play? It never worked for me, and left me feeling uncomfortable about cultural appropriation and insensitivity issues.
Despite this, Little Lake Theatre Company’s production of Middletown is worth the investment of your time and money. It is a pleasant production of a fascinating play, and if you love theater, this is a show for you.
We’ve been lucky in Pittsburgh to have had two Will Eno plays performed recently: the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing), produced by 12 Peers Theater in July 2017, and now, the Horton Foote Award winning Middletown, currently performing at Little Lake Theatre Company. Yay, Pittsburgh! Mr. Eno is considered one of the foremost playwrights of his generation. It is a real treat to see his work performed, and I thank both companies for giving us all a chance to experience these plays.
Go see this play! You won’t regret it. (And order a piece of carrot cake for intermission; it was delicious!)
Middletown runs through October 7, 2017. Visit www.littlelake.org for tickets.