"Middletown," the 2010 play by Will Eno now showing at ACT, has been described by many as a contemporary take on Thornton Wilder’s American Classic, "Our Town." And there is some truth to this statement.
The set design by Jennifer Zeyl is a bit more elaborate than the ladders, benches and chairs typically used to symbolize the various locales of Grover’s Corner in Wilder’s play.
But the simplicity is still there in the bare-framed outline of houses that serve as home to the play’s two main characters, "John Dodge" and "Mary Swanson," and also in the large rock that sits center stage, which serves as the town’s principal monument.
The rest of the stage remains primarily open, and only small set pieces are brought in to take audiences to various other locations in town, such as the library, the hospital, and even beyond, into outer space. All in all, the design is minimalist and functional, which is as it should be, not overshadowing the real focus of the play: Middletown and its inhabitants (to include librarians, cops, mechanics, tourists, tour guides, doctors, nurses and an astronaut).
Director John Langs has assembled a fine cast for this philosophically laden and metaphysically oriented drama that is "about the poetry of everyday life." Like "Our Town," the play is not heavy on plot or action; it is quasi non-narrative, although a relatively simple story does unfold over the course of approximately nine months, -- the span of time in which town newcomer, "Mary," (played by Alexandra Tavares), goes from the early days of her pregnancy to the birth of her firstborn son.
Along the way, glimpses into the lonely and isolated lives of other "Middletonians" are also given, with particular attention on the town cop (played by Matthew Floyd Miller), the town librarian (played by Marianne Owen), the town mechanic (played by Ray Tagavilla) and most importantly, on "John Dodge" (played by Eric Riedman).
A number of actors who play a variety of roles round out the cast. They include Aaron Blakely, Renata Friedman, Sarah Harlett, Sarina Hart and R. Hamilton Wright. Strong performances are given by all, and the entire ensemble is to be commended for the work.
Riedmann, in particular, is outstanding in his role as the shy, neurotic and depressed neighbor, "John." He offers a very real, honest, natural and endearing portrayal of this emotionally tormented and complex character.
Although the play is rather serious, as it delves into the existential angst and isolation of modern life, it does have many humorous moments as well. Many of these moments come from the hilarious performance of R. Hamilton Wright, particularly in his roles as "The Public Speaker" and the "Doctor." Wright is a regular at ACT, and he never fails to deliver top-notch performances in whatever roles he chooses to undertake.
So, much like Wilder’s 1938 American classic, "Middletown’s" focus is on the larger questions of life and death, on the connections between the people and their town, but this is where the comparisons end.
In fact, in an interview with the playwright that appeared in the Boston Globe this past February, Eno talks directly about the connection between the two plays, stating that: "That play [’Our Town’] had a great effect on me, but I never felt it needed an ’update’ or a ’newer version.’ So, if anything, I made conscious efforts to make sure ’Middletown’ went a separate way."
Instead, the playwright credits other writers, like Beckett, DeLillo, and Albee, as his major influences. This is reflected in the play by the attention it gives to the arbitrariness of language, the instability and relativity of identity, and by its metaphysical meditations on the dissociative effects of the human condition.
"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," adds Eno during the interview.
In any case, what the playwright has written is a substantive piece of dramatic literature that dares to ponder the mystery of life, and he does so in a very poetic and engaging fashion.
There are a few scenes that seem superfluous, such as the pre-intermission theatre-within-theatre segment. And at times, the characters’ language can be a bit erudite, and may even seem too pretentious to some, but it is not. Rather, it reflects an honest, articulate playwright asking honest, probing questions about the nature of the world, its people and his role in it.
"Middletown" runs through Sept. 29 at ACT, The Falls Theatre, 700 Union Street, downtown Seattle. For information or tickets call 206-292-7676 or visit www.acttheatre.org.