Middletown's program cover depicts an astronaut floating in celestial space, attached by a winding umbilical cord to a mother ship, which we do not see. It's a metaphorical image that playwright Will Eno uses to advantage in his work, the set darkened except for luminous stars and a light that shines on a lonely astronaut's face as he converses with distant voices back on earth.
The final scene - two hospital beds, one containing Mary Swanson (Moya O'Connell) with her newborn baby, the other, the deceased John Dodge (Gray Powell), depicting life as those brief moments we literally share between birth and death. And the luck of the draw, the absurdity of chance in the process is neatly revealed by Swanson's doctor, who initially confuses her in his charts with a Mrs. Swenson, a difference of one vowel, and for the latter, he has a more somber message.
Artistic Director Tim Carroll employs his signature message (we are all in this enterprise together), as the cast talk freely and mix with the audience before the play begins. They use magic markers like gleeful yet serious children as they map out the city on the floor, some intent on establishing long boundaries, one who labels the Middleton library, hospital and John's house, while others are more concerned with small embellishments, but all ultimately to no avail in the final scene as janitor (Kristopher Bowman) mops away the markings from the floor.
Eno's symbolism is as simple as it is stunning.
O'Connell is convincing as part of a newly arrived couple whose husband never shows up, even for the birth of their baby. She is anxious and lonely and hungers for companionship, and she encounters Powell's troubled John Dodge who seeks out a book on gravity at the library. We see him through a window at night with a baseball while writing notes on gravity. Gravity indeed. That which holds us fast and keeps us grounded as we fly through space like a baseball hit in the air.
The two hit it off with O'Connell attracted to Powell's existential angst which he employs wonderfully, expressing simple statements that are both humorous and profound. A "handyman," he unclogs O'Connell's drain in her sink (more symbolism) yet, in the end, he severs his wrist with an X-Acto knife. Not so handy a man.
Tara Rosling is the prototypical enthusiastic librarian who has an unquenchable thirst for Dewey books from 000 to 900 as well as public service. O'Connell says, "I was hoping to get a library card" and Rosling replies, "Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, 'Why bother? I'm just going to die, anyway.' Let me just find the form."
Despite the sardonic reply, she is humane, able to deal positively with the drunk mechanic (Jeff Meadows) who howls like an animal at night and his nemesis, the cop, (Benedict Campbell) who initiates the action by choking Meadows with his baton. Wearing multiple police gadgets affixed to his belt, he later visits Gray in the hospital after expressing Robert Frost-like late night stopping by woods sentiments over his walkie-talkie, just to see if anyone is listening. (more wonderful symbolism)
Later, Meadows scrounges through garbage bags, looking for discarded pills and he engages Fiona Bryne (a doctor) in a discussion about the meaning of life. She is there because that's where she used to smoke, just outside the hospital, in the same fashion that we often see nurses smoking at hospitals. How ironic is that? He begs her for pain killers, and she eventually misplaces a few on the ground.
Carl Ang performs multiple roles including the astronaut but is most effective as the quick-talking specialist who counsels O'Connell about her pregnancy. Peter Millard as with others, plays multiple roles. As a landscaper, he plants a tree after carefully removing two large rocks from its roots to help it get a better start, and with Campbell, they muse about longevity, carving initials in the wood, attempting to leave one's symbolic legacy, an indication that we exist, just like the tree. He and Claire Julien are hilarious as tourists on the cheap, saving money by deliberately ordering tickets with obstructed views. Yes, once again, Will Eno packs a solid punch that first elicits laughter but later causes one to ponder the "obstructed views" that we have deliberately taken in life.
Sarah Topham is the tour guide at the start of the play, welcoming every type of human being imaginable in a long, run-on sentence that loses steam before the finish line. Along with Jullien, they are faultless as perfunctory hospital attendants, routinely removing tubes from Powell's body, pulling the sheet over his head and expressing a simple, "Goodbye human" as they move on to their other tasks. Natasha Mumba rounds out the talented cast.
Eno offers serves up a series of vignettes, brief encounters between the town's seemingly ordinary citizens. Campbell's righteous cop with his penchant for violence first sets the scene. "Middletown. Population: stable," he intones with smugness. "Elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. The side streets are named after trees. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Average as average can be. Crying, by the way, in both directions."
With Eno, there is always the after-image. The words resonate and stick in your consciousness.
This is a powerful play that could easily be experienced several times to enjoy its rich imagery and it's existential messages personified best by Powell. When, physically and emotionally shaken in his hospital bed, he asks the pregnant O'Connell simply for a hug. It reminds me of many farewell hugs as it will you.
Meg Roe's direction is faultless, and the minimalist design by Camellia Koo, the lighting by Kevin Lamotte and the original music and sound by Alessandro Juliani all combine to infuse this production with the powerful bare starkness of Samuel Beckett and the cutting irony of Edward Albee.
This play is a must-see! (Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre July 13 - September 10)
Director's Notes By Meg Roe
I've never been more reticent to put my words in front of a play, to pin it down for you, or lead you into some kind of understanding of it before you've actually had the chance to hear it, see it, feel it.
In the making of this production, we thought a lot about gentleness and curiosity. About loneliness and joy.
We considered the magic of togetherness and the importance of the individual within the universal.
We wondered about connection, the effort of it, the absence of it in our daily lives, and about context, how the banal can become divine, and how meaning is pinned to imagination.
We sought miracles. We pursued boredom. We found both in the other.
I am so grateful for my collaborators: the artists you'll watch tonight, the collective intellect of Meredith, Molly, Susanne, Kate and Bob, and the rigorous and deeply moving work of Camellia, Kevin and Alessandro.
And I would like to thank
Will Eno, whose sense of mystery and truth is inspiring, and whose generosity and attention to this process was invaluable.
This is our little town. Citizenship begins with finding your seat. Relax, connect, enjoy: eyes open or closed, you are welcome.
Stuck in the Middle with You By Bob Hetherington
"I wish I had more gratitude," says Mary to a friendly neighbour who is trying to unclog her kitchen sink. "When you think of all the miracles it takes just to sit in a chair. A billion things going right, just to sit here. And do nothing." Her regret is typical of the world view that playwright Will Eno has woven throughout more than a decade of provocative, often unnerving plays. Neither his plays nor his career path favour landmark events, preferring the lesser examined middle space.
The son of a lawyer father and a mother who was a volunteer activist (and was once arrested with TV star Ed Asner), Eno grew up in Boston. As he explained to an nterviewer for Time Out New York magazine, after leaving high school he trained as a cyclist at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, winning a silver medal in the national championships. Then a job painting houses steered him in another direction: "The guy I worked for was really into John Donne, and he always played audio books while we worked, so I started moving toward this other life."
In that life, he studied writing with noted New York editor Gordon Lish and, while a fellow at the Edward F. Albee Foundation, found a champion in Albee himself. Eno didn't start going to the theatre until his late twenties, and when he talks about its allure he doesn't describe a memorable production but the experience itself. "With phones ringing and people coughing, you're just somehow aware of the humanness," he says. "There's something triumphantly mortal about the whole thing."
His first break was as improbable as one of his narratives. While on a vacation to London in the late '90s, he dropped off his first play, Tragedy: A Tragedy, at the stage door of the National Theatre with what he calls "a crazy note" scribbled on its title page. A month later the literary manager called and asked if they could do a reading at the National's Studio, a reading that eventually led to a 2001 production at London's Gate Theatre. "For a while I thought this was how things worked, until I realized it wasn't."
When Middletown premiered in 2010, many critics compared it to Thornton Wilder's masterpiece Our Town (revived here last season). Eno acknowledges the connection: "That play had a great effect on me, but I never felt it needed an 'update' or a 'newer' version," he says. "I think Middletown tries to look at the accumulation and effect of the tiny moments that make up our lives - and how we are constantly vulnerable to these tiny moments, which may in fact change the angle of our entire life, or not."
Indeed, the comparison to Wilder isn't very helpful. Whereas Our Town shows a community sustained by love through deep sorrow, in Middletown the characters aspire to love but seem to lack the capacity for it. And Middletown doesn't have a specific geography like Grover's Corners in Our Town. It's really a philosophical space - a state of being. The cop may insist that since he dresses and walks like a cop, he's a cop, but in Middletown not everything is as it seems. Eno's characters brood on spiritual emptiness while going through the motions of daily habits like the inhabitants of David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Most Middletonians might as well be stranded in space (like the astronaut in the first act) for all the direction they're able to give their lives. "People come, people go," the cop explains. "Crying, by the way, in both directions."
Middletown begins as a kind of anti-Our Town. The first character to appear is a Public Speaker who welcomes us to the show as a sort of guide, like Wilder's Stage Manager.
But this speaker can't even bring the welcome to a conclusion. That single run-on sentence becomes a slippery worm, a twisted ramble like Lucky's "think" in Waiting for Godot - a cascade of language that eventually runs out of steam. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood once described Eno as "a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." Middletown's opening isn't Wilder country; it's a Samuel Beckett universe. Pain and solace, loss and gratitude: contradictory feelings collide like bumper cars.
And yet there is a distinctive voice - quizzical, perceptive, assertively compassionate. Like the Public Speaker's welcome, the playwright's voice takes an inclusive, generous view. An interviewer for the Signature Theatre's Guide to his latest play, Wakey Wakey, noted that no matter how lonely or sad his characters may be, Eno does not seem to approach them pessimistically. Asked if he is an optimist, Eno gives a meandering reply that sounds like a character in Middletown: I think I completely am. I don't want to seem simple or naive, but - so the world is this set of preconceptions we have, and fears and anxieties and all these things. But then you'll bump into somebody on the subway, and someone says something funny or surprising or helpful, someone says something sweet. Or you just see something. I was walking to Grand Central, and there were two people sitting on the ledge of a bank eating from a box of cereal, and it happened to be Life cereal. I don't want to turn that in any clever way, it just was two people on a cold evening reaching into this box of Life ... cereal. By Quaker Oats. And that's the world. I could have been in some grumpy mood or turning some unresolvable thing over in my head, and if I had been lucky enough to see that in that moment and lucky enough to feel at least open to that moment, then that becomes a very different world for a little while. So I guess I'm hopeful and optimistic that if we can just be open to things around us, a lot of good things would come in as well as the normal terrifying things and scary things. It's a tough job being a human being, I think. I am constantly amazed so many people do it.
What seems to scare him most is dread itself - the submerged, ambient fear some now take for granted. Dying an animal death is the great terror here, perhaps the final passion that Middletown leaves us. "I guess this is a real irony," says John Dodge from his hospital bed. "Me being here. How I got here." "Irony is a people thing," replies his doctor; "Nature is very frank." So is Eno. He says: "We spend a lot of time thinking about the end and the beginning. We talk about the miracle of birth and the mystery of death. But by definition, all our lives take place in the middle of those two sort of knowable events, in this great and often unexamined middle."
Bob Hetherington is a professor of theatre & dance at the University of Memphis and frequently writes for the Shaw festival, including program essays for The Mountaintop (2014), Light Up the Sky (2015) and Engaged (2016). He is spending this season in residence at the Shaw.