There’s nothing remarkable about Middletown, a fictional town that’s the inspiration for Will Eno’s new play that debuted in 2010 at NYC’s Vineyard Theatre and is now receiving a solid Steppenwolf production. Yet, sometimes the biggest life insights come from looking at the everyday: the choices we make, the community we build, the dreams we tuck away and the ensuing regret and reassessment.
Middletown is mundane. But it’s not boring. Eno’s dialogue is filled with real humanity and beautiful insights into how people — from handicapped to homemaker to handyman — long for a greater purpose. Take for example John Dodge, played by Tracy Letts. John is an unemployed (“between one shitty job and another shitty job”) handyman who wanted to go into law, but everyone laughed at him, so here he is. He reads books about gravity and has panic attacks. He wants people to know there’s more to him than what meets the eye.
Enter Mary Swanson (highly respected Chicago actress Brenda Barrie making her main stage Steppenwolf debut after understudying Sally Murphy in Sex with Strangers), a lonely housewife who’s just moved into the town with her perpetually traveling husband. She’s uprooted and isolated, but manages to present a happy face with a forced, cheery cadence. Mary and John forge a fateful connection.
Eno’s writing is melancholy and smart, with one-liners that are shot out like truth bullets. You laugh at the bluntness of his strongly condensed life observations.
As we all know, Letts is a master actor, and delivers Eno’s philosophical speeches and zingers with bite and nuance. I’ve yet to be won over by Barrie (her overly mannered voice grates me — as my theatre companion so aptly identified, she sounds like a female Tim Gunn) but she manages well enough, and her chemistry with Letts is palpable.
In addition to Letts and Barrie, this rock-star cast features Steppenwolf artistic director Martha Lavey as the town’s life-long librarian and ensemble members Tim Hopper, Alana Arenas and Ora Jones as multiple townspeople. Of the non-ensemble members, Michael Patrick Thornton makes a lasting impression as a wheelchair-bound mechanic who wants to be viewed as someone to look up to, rather than down at.
There are some issues that get in the way of the play’s understated power. Things take a really dark and emotionally manipulative turn in act two when everyone ends up in the hospital for various reasons. And I’m not quite sure what the odd first act coda was all about, where random townspeople comment on the play as audience members (see the production photo above).
While this wasn’t my favorite play, Eno’s writing is constantly thought-provoking and the acting is nuanced and touching, showcasing Steppenwolf’s tight ensemble work.
“Middletown” plays through August 14 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre. More info here >