Reviewed by James Karas
Middletown, the title of Will Eno’s play offered by the Shaw Festival, gives the image of a piece about small-town America. It is a place of charm, innocence, sentimentality, pathos and humour. Yes, it can take many guises but in our imagination that is the most desirable model.
Middletown opens with a Prologue in which a Public Speaker (Peter Millard), dressed casually, welcomes all of us charmingly and somewhat garrulously to the performance. Is this going to be an updated version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town? Or are we talking about distancing us from the action, i.e. reminding us that we are watching a performance and not a representation of real life?
In the first scene we see a man and a woman sitting by windows on opposite sides of the street going about their business. We will soon find out that they are Mrs. Swanson (Moya O’Connell) and John Dodge (Gray Powell). The Cop (Benedict Campbell) approaches the Mechanic (Jeff Meadows) and speaks to him aggressively for no particularly good reason and puts him in a choke hold with his stick. The Cop apologizes to us and welcomes us to Middletown. The Mechanic addresses us directly as well. Some of the speeches to the audience are quite long and sound disjointed.
There is something wrong here. The conduct and speeches of most of the characters contain incongruities or are quite incomprehensible. The situations that we see have underlying layers that are removed from linear logic.
Mrs. Swanson wants to become pregnant with a husband that we never see and who seems to be forever on business trips. She tries to make some sort of contact with Dodge, a local handyman who is between two jobs but is not sure what his second job will be. Their awkward attempts at friendship may be as far as they are capable of going. In the end Mrs. Swanson does become pregnant but John takes his own life.
The town has a charming if loopy librarian (Tara Rosling) who explains that a lot of people don’t bother getting library cards because they expect to die. The town is named Middletown because it is between two places but no one knows what two places.
The play has twenty-four scenes and some of them are brief and dissonant. In one scene the Mechanic lurks around Mrs. Swanson’s window making sounds from nature. He frightens her but we don’t see her in the scene again. Mechanic tells us that he has taken up drinking again and gives us a chance to come up with a reason for it.
There are over twenty characters played by a dozen actors. O’Connell, Powell, Campbell, Rosling and Meadows play one role each while the rest of the cast take on between two and three roles each.
Meg Roe directs the cast and it coheres as an ensemble unit. Camellia Koo’s design is sparse as is necessary in a theatre-in-the-round.
Despite the folksy appearance and the apparently easy-going acting, Middletown is not Our Town. It is a complex play that tries to encompass a great deal. As a result, it is not always easy to follow and may need more than one viewing in order to capture more of its intricacies.
Middletown by Will Eno runs in repertory until September 10, 2017 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.