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Review: Middletown sucks the viewer into an oddball, poetic world

Gray Powell as John Dodge and Moya O’Connell as Mrs. Swanson in Middletown.

David Cooper

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Middletown
Written by
Will Eno
Directed by
Meg Roe
Actors
Moya O’Connell and Gray Powell
Venue
Shaw Festival
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake
Runs Until
Sunday, September 10, 2017

Abracadabra! Some theatre works on you as if by magic.

It's a mystery to me, anyway, how playwright Will Eno pulls off the trick he does in Middletown – his 2010 play that takes the audience on a tour of a small town that exists just off the highway about halfway between birth and death.

Eno certainly doesn't follow any of the usual dramatic rules. His first act is primarily comedic in tone, relentlessly quirky and discursive in its depiction of a host of locals self-consciously living their lives – a librarian, a guide on a walking tour, an astronaut looking down on his hometown from outer space.

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After intermission, Middletown teeters on the banal in a series of straightforward, simple scenes that centre on the town hospital. In one, a janitor enters a room where a mother lies in bed with her newborn, says hello and then leaves – and that's it.

How to explain then why – a few minutes after sitting through the curtain call of director Meg Roe's production at the Shaw Festival and applauding politely – I found myself breaking down in the parking lot and having the first full-on weep I've had after a play in years?

Middletown's setting brings to mind to Grover's Corners from Thornton Wilder's Our Town – and, at first, Eno's play seems almost like a parody of that classic American play that tries to fit the entire universe of human experience into a few square miles.

The Shaw Festival produced that play last season – and Benedict Campbell, who was the stage manager then, returns here in a similar role as a police officer who knows every house on every street in town and speaks directly to the audience.

But in the middle of his first scene, he suddenly goes a bit wilder than Wilder – pulling out his baton and strangling a local layabout (Jeff Meadows) for talking back to him. "Say, 'This is my hometown,'" he demands. "Say, 'My life is a mystery to me.' Say it! Be filled with humility. With wonder and awe. Awe!"

(Perhaps this is what you've felt as an audience member at an underwhelming production of Our Town – one that favours its folkiness over its existentialism. )

Eno is an idiosyncratic writer and he seems to like to keep audiences on their toes – writing scenes that lurch in unexpected ways, dialogue that keeps falling off its own tracks.

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Middletown doesn't so much centre then as swish and swirl around two characters: Mary Swanson (Moya O'Connell), who has moved to town with her husband to start a family, and the sporadically employed plumber John Dodge (Gray Powell), who she meets at the library.

In their interactions, the two talk about their respective flavours of loneliness in a dialogue that shifts suddenly from stream of consciousness to painful self-consciousness.

"Night is hard, you know? It gets so quiet; I never know what I'm supposed to be listening to," Mary says. "But it does give me time to catch up on my needless worry."

"I do that – what you just did," John responds. "Use humour to try to distance myself from pain."

"I was using humour to try to be funny."

"Yeah, that's something different."

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My first experiences with Eno's work left me highly skeptical of him as a writer, thinking of him as a sitcom writer for the stage – and entirely too on the nose with his philosophical musings.

But there's a oddball poeticism to his writing, a compelling insistency to the way he circles back on themes that creates an eddy that sucks you into his worlds when performers truly relax into his work and don't try to sell it too hard.

That's the case here in Roe's fine production of Middletown.

O'Connell and Powell lead a textured 12-person cast that really nails the Eno style – with particularly notable work from Meadows, Tara Rosling, Peter Millard and Karl Ang. The latter plays the astronaut in Roe's most brilliantly staged scene (ingeniously designed by Camellia Koo), which seems to actually pull you into space, allowing you down on the planet physically the way Emily does metaphysically at the end of Our Town.

And you may be tempted to cry – even without a baton at your throat: "Oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."

Middletown (shawfestival.ca) continues to Sept. 10.

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