Wed. July 6, 2011 12:00 AM
by John Olson
There are 16 communities in the U.S. called Middletown, according to the program notes for this production. Though a detailed history of the town in this play by Will Eno is given by its local librarian, the place it is intended to represent is none of the 16 American Middletowns as it is some sort of Purgatory – neither Heaven nor Hell, but some sort of place in the middle. The residents of this seemingly All-American community are nominally connected to each other – two of the five major characters are public servants (the librarian and a policeman) and the other three at least know each other. Still, the characters are shown to be essentially alone, in spite of the small measures of kindness (or even some instances of cruelty) shown to them.
There's the divorced John Dodge (Tracy Letts), living alone in his clean middle-class home next door to Middletown's newest resident, the pregnant Mary Swanson (Brenda Barrie), married to a man constantly away from home on business. Also in and out of the neighborhood is the wheelchair bound and possibly homeless "Mechanic" (Michael Patrick Thornton), who's periodically chased away by the local beat cop (Danny McCarthy) that patrols this town where there are few infractions of the law and hence little need for his work. (After he observes that a landscaper is planting a tree, the landscaper says, "Congratulations – you've solved the case of what I was doing.") All of these residents are known by the kindly librarian (Martha Lavey), who has the knowledge of current events and past community history to put it all into perspective and gather whatever meaning there may be in observing the life of this town.
The first act is drolly funny, as playwright Will Eno's characters roll off a number of one-liners establishing their limited self-esteem and perceived lack-of-importance in this quiet, clean town, where nothing much of importance seems to happen. It's all very clever, but written and delivered so dryly to be almost hypnotic as directed by Les Waters. In the second act, though, Eno makes the characters more human, giving more of their back stories and showing their losses and the deep loneliness that has been present within them for quite some time, if not all their lives. In this act, it's shown that we all enter and leave the world alone and the play suggests not much of importance happens in between. If this is a take on Thornton Wilder's Our Town, it's a dark (and darkly funny) one. While Wilder may have suggested our lives are filled with small and usual events, he at least shown they had meaning in the moment. Eno is not so certain of that.
The performances are uniformly touching and bitingly funny – with multiple smaller roles being handled by the insanely talented ensemble of Alana Arenas, Molly Glynn, Tim Hopper, Ora Jones and Keith Kupferer. The simple unit set of the street outside Mary and John's homes (by Antje Ellermann) is given an otherworldly glow of twilight and sunrise in the subtle lighting design of Matt Frey. Janice Pytel designed the everyday-looking attire that is its most realistic element and grounds the play in contrast to the otherworldly feel of the look and general mood of the piece.
The feeling and impressions left by Middletown, much of which communicate great loneliness, are certain to resonate at times for most of us. At the same time, though, Eno shows a basic decency in his characters that can suggest all is not without hope or value. Middletown is a funny and haunting play that should spark debate and reflection among its audiences for some time after viewing it.
Middletown will play through August 14, 2011 in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Ave., Chicago. For ticket information, visit the box office; call 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.
PHOTO CREDITS: (left to right) Tracy Letts, Brenda Barrie. Photo by Michael Brosilow.