When my grandmother died 30-some years ago, my sister and I helped my parents and my uncle and his family dispose and distribute her possessions. The task was far from pleasant for all of us, but my sister seemed especially susceptible, being unusually moody and irritable and complained regularly of not feeling well.
Several weeks after that ordeal, we all learned the reason: my sister was pregnant with her first child (who recently celebrated his first wedding anniversary, as it happens). I remember this clearly because I was struck by the cycle of life occurring: a birth in the family, almost overlapping a death in the family.
I remembered this, once again, watching ACT’s moving version of Will Eno’s Middletown. Before us, on stage, was playing out these very same cycles, life, death, and our attempts at finding meaning (or at least our meaning) out of all this.
These are ambitious themes, and have brought forth many comparisons to Spoon River Anthology, Our Town and even Angels in America. And Middletown deserves to be in their company while, at the same time, standing on it own terms, the same way these other pieces stake their own claims.
The play opens with The Public Speaker coming on stage and introducing the audience with “Ladies and Gentlemen”. But he doesn’t stop there. Like the Emcee in Cabaret, he goes on: “Mesdames and Monsieurs, damen und herren” and then continues: people who laugh and cry; people who are married and people who are not; people who (to do) and (do that). After almost five minutes, he’s finally finished, and the point is made clear: We’re all here, all being the full scope of humanity, represented right here, in this room and, by extension, on the stage.
The speech is delivered by favored local R. Hamilton Wright, but unlike the Emcee or Stage Manager, he disappears, not to be see again. Or is he? Wright reappears in several other roles throughout the show, a reminder that we all play multiple roles in our lives.
Slowly, townspeople appear: the smug cop (Matthew Floyd Miller), librarian (Marianne Owen, another of my favorites), the local drug addict/mechanic (Ray Tagavilla), the troubled loner (Eric Reidman) and the lonely newcomer (Alexandra Tavares). Some are in multiple roles, others are not, and additional characters add color and depth to Middletown as lives play out before us.
Now, of course, most people don’t actually speak with such self-awareness and profundity as they do with Eno’s lines, but that’s not really the point. We become aware of the preciousness and miracle of our mere existence. Sometimes we miscommunicate, sometimes our message breaks up like a bad cell phone call, but Eno lets us know that even those discontinuities are a part of life.
The playwright has even more tricks up his sleeve; he slyly plays with the audience and their relationship to the characters. The by-the-book cop cleans up his act when he realizes the presence of the audience, and characters in theater seats break for intermission, just before the audience does. All the world’s a stage, indeed. But this is all part of the playwright’s plan, of our interconnectedness and responsibilities to the multiple communities we all belong to.
None of this would work without a firm director, and John Lang directs with a sure, but firm hand so the spoken poetry doesn’t become drivel or pretentious twaddle. He helps us see the fears, loneliness, and kindness underneath our deeds and words, and we react with the townspeople to the joy of childbirth, the awe of a spacewalk, and the fear lurking around the edges of death. The entire cast responds, delivering consistently solid, believable performances.
Middletown skates on the dark edges of Our Town, yet still feels very much Grovers Corners-ish. It’s a more sophisticated story, for a more sophisticated time, but lacks the angry bite of Angels in America. It very much stakes its own place, and deservedly so.
See it while it’s still here at ACT, until September 30.