Trinity Rep's "Middletown": Life is an Oreo Cookie

Justin Blanchard as Astronaut in "Middletown"

At the start of Trinity Rep’s production of “Middletown”, a 2010 play by Lowell native Will Eno (“The Realistic Joneses”), we are all (including the “newly departed”) welcomed to the little town, an ordinary place at an ordinary time, as aren’t they all. Later comes the kicker: “No, they are not, all”. We’ve been hearing from the Public Speaker (Fred Sullivan, Jr.), who is often compared to the Stage Manager in Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”, but to overstress this brief similarity would be to miss the uniqueness of Eno. The playwright has said that he wants to convey the “difficulty of consciousness, and the various complications of even the simplest-appearing life”. As very well directed here by the company’s Artistic Director Curt Columbus, it soon becomes clear that this is not meant to be enjoyed as yet another nostalgia trip. One could put it that life is like an Oreo, with birth on one side and death on the other, with a lot of stuff in between. Before the play’s end, we know there will be both a birth and a death, but this doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s a very wise and wonderfully funny work.

The storytelling begins with Mary Swanson (Angela Brazil), pregnant with her first child, who has just moved into town next door to chronically troubled John Dodge (Mauro Hantman). Hoping to enjoy the closeness she expects from small town life, she finds that neighbors are strangers to one another and lack connection. There seem to be two lives being led, one visible and ordinary, the other invisible, and very mysterious, even epically poetic. Through the lives of what first appear on the surface to be ordinary lives being led by ordinary people, we begin to appreciate what the playwright is up to. These townfolk include the brash Cop (Joe Wilson, Jr.), a wacky Librarian (Janice Duclos), an Astronaut (Justin Blanchard), a kindly Doctor (Sullivan again) and a Mechanic (Lee Osorio). There are also some visitors touring the town (Rachael Warren and Tracy Allard) with a Tour Guide (Rebecca Gibel).

Eno knows just how to set you up for a warm and fuzzy scene (the one between Mary and the Doctor is especially lovely), then blindside you with absurdist humor. Note the Mechanic: “people don’t stop to think how lucky they are. I do. And, I’ve realized, I’m not that lucky. But I get by. If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-itiveness, I might have been a murderer.” Or the Librarian quoting a Native American who first lived in the area: “Someone is born, someone will die. Both are you. Unwind, unknow.” And especially the Cop: “People come, people go…crying, by the way, in both directions”. Then there’s the tongue-in-check Tour Guide: “Sunglasses were almost invented here”. Eno is all about words. In one truly hilarious scene he has one character working under a sink inaudible to us, but another character can hear and respond, so we get a fractured half conversation. At the base of all of this is, in the Doctor’s words, love and forgiveness.

The entire cast is extraordinarily effective with just the right pacing by Columbus. Standouts are Brazil, Hantman, Duclos and Wilson, not to mention Blanchard in one beautifully cosmic scene. The Set Design by Deb O is mischievous and subtle (when a character does die, the light is quietly put out in his dollhouse-sized “home” set on a pole). The Costume Design by Alison Walker Carrier is smart and on target, while the Lighting Design by Josh Epstein and Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz convey a good deal of the underlying mystery.

Eno is a playwright to be reckoned with, whose lyricism even in the simplest of exchanges is spellbinding. As he says in the play, birth is both real and surreal. The same could be said for this groundbreaking new play. It makes us feel lucky, as one character sums it up, to be a human person. And a theatergoer, one might add.

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