Directed by Les Waters
At Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
“Middletown. Population: stable; elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. The side streets are named after trees. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.”— Cop
Subtle existential drama plays homage to Wilder’s Our Town but plays much larger
Will Eno’s Middletown is a strange work that will either fully involve you or bother you with lack of action making it a “love it or hate it ” show. It took me hours of thought after the show to get a grip on this self-aware provocative work. It took effort to get me past the strong Our Town references about everyday life in small town America. But once I realized Eno’s take on the life cycle focuses on the middle part – that part between birth and death of the life cycle – I began to appreciate deeper levels of Middletown. Eno emphasizes how we attempt to articulate our lives through human speech. We hear zinging one-liners, smart sarcasm and elliptical dialogue that resonates almost poetic. Utilizing series of vignettes and monologues spoken directly to the audience at times, Middletown articulates life’s absurdity in everyday life.
We meet an assortment of common folk from Middletown including a doting librarian (Martha Levy), a neurotic handyman, John ( Tracy Letts), a bored cop (Danny McCarthy), an underemployed tour guide (Alena Arenas), a philosophical landscaper (Keith Kupferer), a pair of tourists – Male (Tim Hopper) and Female (Molly Glynn) while we meet the town’s new citizen, Mary Swanson (Brenda Barrie) – a child-wanting lonely married woman whose husband constantly travels for business.
Mary meets John and the Librarian as she bonds with the friendly locals. At each encounter, we discover that each resident is in the middle of their life cycle- some are ordinary and others complex. Fear, anxiety, loneliness and the search for peace dominate the mysterious existence of seemingly normal folks.
The work is filled with wry humor, especially from Michael Patrick Thornton’s Mechanic – an alcoholic wondering soul played with droll acumen. Exquisite comic timing by Thornton fuels the laughs. Brendia Barrie and Martha Levy were terrific and Tracy Letts plays John with a fine mixture of depression and self-loathing that is quite powerful. While the acting was fine, the breezy pace and self awareness atmosphere hurt the production.
Stay with Middletown’s slow early pacing as it all comes together and delivers a provocative and insightful look into the angst of universal loneliness we all experience since we enter the world alone and we leave it alone- the rest of our existence is life’s middle area. Act Two of Middleton vividly demonstrates that dichotomy. The struggle to find meaning and purpose in the middle of a life cycle looms strong in this intelligent work. There is much more to seemingly light, almost whimsical, drama that necessitates our full attention. There are profound messages here worth contemplating. Middletown is an artful theatrical experience.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: June 25, 2011
At Steppemwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, call 312-335-1650, www.steppenwolf.org, tickets $20 – $73, Tuesdays thru Sundays at 7:30 pm, Saturday & Sundays matinees at 3 pm, Wednesday matinees on July 27, August 3 & 10 at 2 pm, running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with intermission, through August 14, 2011