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The Rousuck Review: Middletown

Harry Bechkes

Loneliness, luck (or the lack of it), birth and death weave their way through Will Eno’s play, “Middletown” -- now at the Theatrical Mining Company in Baltimore.  In the opening scene, the character of a policeman describes the town: “Population: stable. Elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street…People come, people go. Crying, by the way, in both directions.”

Stylistically, this description is reminiscent of the Stage Manager’s description of Grover’s Corners at the start of “Our Town.” Much of what follows is an homage to that classic American play.

This past June, I moderated a playwrights’ panel at the second International Thornton Wilder Conference. Will Eno was one of the panelists. He praised Wilder’s immense skill at writing about the quotidian – the commonplace, the everyday.

The quotidian – and the struggle of everyday life – is the core of  “Middletown.” And, under Barry Feinstein’s direction, the performances in the Theatrical Mining Company’s production emphasize the ordinariness of the characters – along with their desperation.

Consider the character of a policeman, identified as “cop,” and skillfully played by Mike Page. Although we later see the cop’s compassionate side, in his first scene, he’s menacing. He welcomes us to Middletown at the same time that, for no apparent reason, he’s bullies and attacks the town drunk, played by Jonathan Sachsman.

Middletown’s everyday folk – the cop, the librarian, a young wife, a handyman – all have dark sides. The play might have been just a series of vignettes, but an affecting plot develops between the handyman and the young wife, who’s eager to start a family, although her husband is mostly out of town.

Movingly portrayed by Lisa Bryan and Michael Zemarel, the wife, Mary, and the handyman, John, are the beating heart of “Middletown.” The characters are eager to connect -- and alike in many respects -- but John’s worldview is much bleaker than Mary realizes.

Two empty window frames are major elements in designer Bush Greenbeck’s sparse set at Hampden’s Church and Company. One window frequently frames Mary; the other frames John. The images relate to the cop’s comments about the loneliness he feels looking in windows at night.

These are among the many comments that repeatedly spell out “Middletown’s” large themes. There’s too much of this in Will Eno’s script. For instance, when an expectant mother asks a doctor how to handle what’s ahead, he tells her: “…part of the whole great March of Humanity is just swinging your arms and walking, just smiling and moving forward.”

Director Feinstein’s generally gentle approach helps counteract some of the didacticism. If the pacing picks up during the run, that’ll help, too.

The simplicity of tone that the playwright is going for is more difficult to achieve than it would seem – particularly when paired with themes of overarching depth.

Feinstein has eliminated a fairly lengthy intermission scene – perhaps to cut down on cast size; there are 11 actors even without it. In the missing scene, a new set of actors portrays audience members discussing the play we’re watching. Even here, the characters launch into a commentary on birth, death and what happens in between.

So a little less theorizing about the Big Questions may not be a bad thing. But most important, this Theatrical Mining Company production gets the human side right. And in the end, when we witness the parallel but opposite fates of Mary and John, the writing, direction and performances come together in a place that is truly touching.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.