by Lynn on August 21, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Written by Will Eno
Directed by Meg Roe
Designed by Camellia Koo
Lighting by Kevin Lamotte
Original music and dound by Alessandro Juliani
Cast: Karl Ang
Kristopher Bowman
Fiona Byrne
Benedict Campbell
Claire Julien
Jeff Meadows
Peter Millard
Natasha Mumba
Moya O’Connell
Gray Powell
Tara Rosling
Sara Topham

A wonderful play and production about people who are unsettled in their lives and often take drastic measures to correct it. But each of them is human to the core.

The Story
. There are certainly echoes of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in Will Eno’s Middletown. The title is definitely a play on words.

Wilder’s Our Town is about a small town where everybody knows everybody, works hard, is kind and understanding and has patience for people who are less fortunate.

In Middletown Eno has great fun setting the scene by someone who greets us in an almost wild stream of consciousness. There are plays on words, linguistic gymnastics, and all manner of word play. Karl Ang performed it at my performance and he did it with supreme confidence and wit.

Then the play starts proper.

In Middletown we soon meet the townsfolk: There is an unhappy, almost aggressive, fully equipped cop who takes his job very seriously; a lurking man who seems almost homeless and drinks; a anxious woman named Mary who is moving in to town on her own for now—her husband always is travelling for business; a handyman named John who is a bit of a loser, awkwardly charming, but still sad, a lovely librarian etc.

The people in town know each other and have compassion in some quarters but there is an underbelly of discontent, unhappiness, lack of fulfilment. But like any town and good literature, there is a birth and death almost simultaneously.

The Production. It takes place in the newly named Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre. The audience sits on all sides of the bare space. As we are seated, the cast come out in street clothes and greet us, chat us up, make contact. That seems to be a thing at the Shaw Festival this year. We are greeted outside the theatre by greeters, inside by other greeters, inside the theatre proper by people who take our tickets, and in many shows before it begins someone from the organization (actor, crew, other creatives, administration) goes on stage to welcome us again and tell us about themselves, and for a few shows the cast welcome us. OK! I get it! You’re happy we’re there. What’s next—a group hug!? Enough already!

Eventually, in a communal moment, the cast draw the outline of the town of Middletown on the black floor in white marker. There’s a river and all sorts of buildings. Camellia Koo’s stage is bare except for the painted buildings etc. on the floor, and the occasional set piece that is rolled on and off (a desk, a sink cabinet, two window frames etc.)

Director Meg Roe has staged and directed this beautifully. Set pieces are rolled on and off. At various times two window frames are rolled on and placed opposite each other. Mary (Moya O’Connell) sits behind one window, looking out at nothing in particular. Behind the other is John (Gray Powell), looking out at nothing in particular (He’s looking in Mary’s direction, but is not looking at her). Both are still, silent, look sad, pensive, and uncertain about their future. In a flash director Meg Roe illuminates the essence of loneliness.

As Mary is getting her house ready for her (never seen) husband, John comes over to fix her sink. A structure that is a combo sink and under it is rolled on. John disappears under it to work on the drains. Mary stands chatting.

This means that a large part of the audience can’t see John so director Meg Roe has John make a quarter turn of the sink and work underneath it and speak, then turn it another quarter and work underneath it and speak, so that the audience on all sides of the theatre can see him when he talks. Brilliant

Spoiler Alert!!! There is a scene near the end of the play in which Mary is in a hospital bed holding a baby. There is enough conversation and activity with that baby to warrant the same moving of the bed (as the sink-cabinet) so that we all can see Mary and that baby, but the bed was not moved. I was only able to see the back of Mary’s head for the whole, long scene and I wanted to see the whole picture.

The acting is exemplary under Meg Roe’s sensitive, attentive direction. The playing between Gray Powell as John and Moya O’Connell as Mary is particularly fine. You just know that over time these two lonely people would become friends and might have been closer and good for each other. As played by Gray Powell, John is charming, self-deprecating and so twitchy and awkward. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know what to do around people, yet the people with whom he interacts have time and patience for him. You feel he tries to fit in, but you know he doesn’t seem to fit. You ache for John because of the beautiful way that Gray Powell plays him.

As Mary, Moya O’Connell has a sense of stillness and sadness that is compelling. We know Mary is hiding a lot. She looks at John with anticipation. O’Connell’s eyes dance when she looks at John, perhaps hoping for a deepening relationship. And when both Mary and John look out their respective windows, at nothing in particular, the look of sadness and loneliness is palpable.

Fiona Byrne is hard edged as the harried doctor in the play but reveals an unsentimental softness when a homeless man needs a painkiller, and she helps him out.

Benedict Campbell is the formidable Cop who doesn’t give that homeless guy a break. This cop is quiet swagger and intimidation except when dealing with people in the town he likes. The person who gets most of the Cop’s ire is the Mechanic, played with a brooding edge by Jeff Meadows.

. Will Eno writes of the troubled heart. His use of language is both spare and yet dazzles in places. In Middletown we see people going through their day, just trying to get by and perhaps do better. It’s a quiet place with a bit of an undercurrent of possibilities; the cycle of life happens subtly, almost unnoticed but obviously noticed in this stunning production.

Presented by the Shaw Festival

Began: July 13, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 10, 2017.
Cast: 12: 6 men, 6 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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1 Eleanor O'Connor August 24, 2017 at 10:38 pm

Just home and I say “Well said! “, Lynn . It’s worth the trip to Shaw to see it . Make you think for days.