Middletown

[Name]In the late 1930s Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town as a reaction to the popular, “devitialized” theatre of his time. The over-stuffed, toothless, realist drama that ruled the stage neither disturbed nor provoked, Wilder thought, but only served to soothe the middle class audiences who had brought about its creation. Wilder’s stripped down, prop-less American classic, in which everything was mimed, sought to invite its audience into the cosmic immeasurability of the minutiae of small town life and death.

Playwright Will Eno’s Middletown, the current mainstage production at ACT, is a “contemporary spin” on Wilder’s masterpiece, and runs on the very same fuel of life’s mysteries, both huge and small. Set in the nondescript, yet distinctly American, location of Middletown, which seems to be at once in the middle of nowhere and everywhere, Eno creates a cast of complex and pained characters that the talented ACT cast sets out fiercely to inhabit. Eno has penned his own metatheatrical curtain speech, delivered with profound hilarity by R. Hamilton Wright, which is followed directly by an opening scene of irrational and explosive police brutality. The scene is cut short and the audience is directly addressed, for, in lieux of a Grover’s Corner Narrator, it’s Middletown’s residents that talk to the audience. Both scenes serve to loosen the footing of the audience early on. It’s unclear into just what kind of town we are headed, and thus the production progresses deeper into the quotidian eccentricities of the local residents.

One of the play’s big questions, writes director John Langs, is “What is the purpose of the beautiful, lonely, sad, profound, and joyful gift of life?” This theme is best exemplified by the burgeoning relationship between long-time Middletown resident John Dodge (Eric Riedmann), and his new, and pregnant, neighbor Mary Swanson (Alexandra Tavares). Like Emily and George of Our Town, Mary and John are just next door to each other, in minimalist frame houses, each trying to wrap their heads around the life that is steam rolling over them. Riedmann plays the deeply troubled John with biting depth as well as superb comic timing. Tavares, for her part, adeptly balances Mary between the stilted confusion of a lonely newcomer and a vibrancy that is longing for the comfort to express itself. In the perpetual absence of Mary’s husband, John and Mary drift towards intimacy, and both actors play superbly off each other, keeping the audience guessing the outcome.

“Every person who has ever lived has lived an unbroken succession of unique occasions,” wrote Wilder, reflecting on his play some twenty years later, and Eno plumbs this theme with rich minor characters. The archetypal Librarian, Cop, Mechanic, and Tour Guide all reveal themselves to be profoundly philosophical, as Eno’s witty and ironic dialogue continually gouges the surface of life’s most challenging questions. Frustrated with constant failure, the troubled Mechanic (Ray Tagavilla) describes the attempt to master life as “trying to fix a moving car.” When Mary observes to her doctor that life seems very surreal, he agrees, but also confers (deadpan) that it also seems very “real.” It’s “like vaudeville,” the play craftily observes of itself, and the tight ensemble seldom misses to elicit a laugh at the appropriate moment. Langs once again proves to be a master of rhythm, culling from his cast beats and scenes that are superbly formed.

Stand out members of the cast are Ray Tagavilla (The Mechanic), whose collision with his inebriated, yet lucid, character seemed just the right amount of passionate impact, and Renata Friedman (The Tour Guide/Sweetheart), idiosyncratically stunning in both roles.

Although the play in no way reverts to the realist drama that its predecessor sought to disrupt, Middletown does employ realistic set pieces and costumes, efficiently designed by Jennifer Zeyl and Rose Pederson, respectively: medical equipment, a hydraulic platform, an astronaut suit, a newborn baby, a billy club. All is present. Nothing is mimed. The sets and costumes, however, do not clutter the stage and are by and large expertly employed. But if their presence does not distract, it neither disturbs. Most of the clutter in the world of Middletown seems to be, at times, the probing, metaphysical dialogue itself. Rarely does the script seem to veer from a deeply existential discussion and land on a scene of simple action. Although the ideas and musings of Eno can be extremely fascinating, the playwright has a heavy hand, and it can often seem that each character is just another lobe of Eno’s brain, not a person in and of themselves.

ACT’s production of Middletown is highly recommendable with a top-notch cast of local actors who are crisp, talented, and intelligent. But for all its penetrating philosophy and meticulously crafted dialogue, the script’s end-of-play attempt to reveal the cycle of life and death almost feels a little too carefully wound, too taut. After so much theoretical questioning, the play feels like it has its own answer. And though it might very well be Lang’s intention, this production does what Wilder originally set out to defy, it soothes.

MIDDLETOWN by Will Eno, A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union Street, Downtown Seattle, Aug. 30 to Sep. 29. Tues-Sun. Times and Matinees vary. Box-Office (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org. Special event: Sept. 8 – Community discussion “What is our Middletown?”

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