Shaw Festival and Crow’s Theatre/Middletown by Will Eno, directed by Meg Roe, Streetcar Crowsnest, Nov. 12 to Dec. 1. Tickets available at 647-341-7390, ext 1010 or crowstheatre.com.
Middletown, by distinguished American playwright Will Eno, was a huge hit for the Shaw Festival in 2017. If you missed it, you now have a second chance to catch this acclaimed production as part of Crow’s Theatre season. Lucky Toronto! The 11-member original cast has been imported from Niagara-on-the-Lake for the event, which means an up close and personal encounter with the storied Shaw Festival ensemble.
The play, which premiered in 2010, is not easy with its absurdist tangents, quirky dialogue and off-beat humour, but as a testament to everyday life and survival, Middletown is as disturbing as it is funny. Eno’s ability to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary is a marvel.
The playwright was clearly inspired by Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic Our Town, where the small New England town of Grover’s Corners was a metaphor for the world at large. Both plays begin in the same way with a narrator, (in this case, an ironic Claire Jullien), giving a description of the town and its denizens.
Where Wilder’s message was essentially one of hope and humanity’s ultimate triumph, Eno definitely swings to the more melancholy side of things. His Middletown is ringed with sadness.
The name Middletown can mean several things. Eno sees Middletown as the middle time between birth and death, both of which occur in the play — in other words, the actual living that we do.
Each citizen of Eno’s Middletown is existing in different states of fulfillment, mostly on the downbeat side, and in them, we see ourselves. Obviously, the American Mid-West also comes to mind, and given the current times, I thought about those Trump voters who populate the Red States. The play is about a small town, and while it was written pre-Trump, it is still, in my mind, about the Trumpites and their struggle for recognition.
Several of the cast play one character throughout. Insecure Mary (Moya O’Connell) and her husband Bob (whom we never see) have just moved to Middletown. He is forever travelling, and Mary is beset with loneliness.
She faces her first pregnancy practically by herself. Mary befriends the philosophizing handyman John (Gray Powell), a clearly intelligent man who has never found himself. He would like more from the relationship with Mary. In an ironic twist, by calling these characters John and Mary, Eno evokes those hoary jokes from the Thirties and Forties where the names “John and Mary” became the metaphor for every romantic cliché.
The laconic cop Robert (Benedict Campbell) bestrides the town like a Colossus, a bully with a surprisingly tender side. The rebellious Craig (Jeff Meadows) is an ex-Navy Seal, one of the lost veterans who is a druggie and a drinker. Finally, there is the gentle librarian Judith (Corrine Koslo) who seems to be the only optimist in town. As she knows everyone, Judith is the glue who holds everything together.
The other members of the ensemble (Karl Ang, Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Peter Millard, Natasha Mumba, and Jullien) play a host of roles including a tour guide, doctors, nurses, an orderly, tourists, a landscape gardener, a child, audience at a play, and an astronaut (who happens to come from Middletown).
How director Meg Roe and set designer Camellia Koo depict the astronaut in space is one of the glorious surprises of the play. Needless to say, the Shaw ensemble as a whole is at the top of its game with Campbell, Powell, Meadows and Koslo being standouts.
The astronaut (Ang), besides being the centre point of the play’s existential philosophy, figures in a couple of blighted hopes. Veteran Craig found a rock in the woods that he was hoping would be a meteorite, and so lead to fame and fortune, but it was astronaut Greg who gave him the sad news that it wasn’t. Similarly, handyman John bought a tandem bike from Greg, but then returned it. The audience is supposed to surmise that he had no one to ride it with.
The standout feature of Middletown is Eno’s wry humour which peppers ordinary speech full of surprising observations. Here are some examples. When Mary wants a library card, Judith is delighted because, as she explains, most people don’t bother because they are going to die anyway.
When the cop is describing the town, he says that we have you coming and going, crying in both directions.
John tells Mary that he’s between two lousy jobs, he just doesn’t know what the next one is. In fact, John has some of the best lines. He describes marriage as needing a good book. He tells the doctor that his genes are sad. When he hears that Mary’s husband is in sales, he remarks that he’d like to be in something too. He also likes the idea of identity theft, hoping someone will take his. Eno’s ability to play with the words of banal conversation is truly an art.
We all have a story, the cop in Middletown tells us. The real question that the play raises is, what makes life worth living?