Orange County Theatre Reviews

(photo courtesy: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio)

Written by Scotty Keister 

Like a version of Our Town on acid, Will Eno’s Middletown traverses the boundaries of small town American life, from underground to outer space, propelled by humor, insight and passion. Trevor Bishop ably directs this creative and dazzling Chance Theater production which runs through May 21.

Eno’s writing is sprinkled liberally with truths big and little, secrets you wouldn’t want your neighbors to know, but the rest of the world needs to hear. He even reveals how the universe is unfolding. Eno has been described as a “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation,” but he reminds me more of early-period Sam Shepard—probably a little of both. His set of characters—all played charmingly by a fine ensemble of actors, many of whom play more than one role—are an oddball assortment: a morose handyman (James McHale), a spacey astronaut (Ahmed T. Brooks), a mechanic/drunk (Ned Liebl), a cop with privacy issues (Robert Foran), a philosophical librarian (Karen Webster), a tour guide (Karen O’Hanlon), the spunky new girl in town, Mary (Lola Kelly) and a strange little girl (Marissa LeDoux). The characters speak directly and honestly to the audience and to each other about their lives, fears, doubts, hopes, dreams, regrets, ambitions and loves. There is birth,  death and a trip to space.

Although the show does not actually have a story, it begins with newcomer Mary moving to town with her husband, who is strangely always away on business, even though they are trying to have a baby. She quickly strikes up a friendship with the quirky but friendly John, a local handyman. Characters appear and reappear, explaining who they are and how they relate to Middletown, a small community seemingly in the middle of nowhere, yet a friendly place like most other small towns you’d stumble across. Everyone seems to know everyone else intimately. The first act moves fluidly from a library to a town park to outer space. The second act mostly takes place in a hospital with Mary having her baby and someone else in serious trouble. Even in tragedy everything is revealed through the lens of truth and, ultimately, hope.

The set, designed by Bruce Goodrich, is a marvel. Built like a shadow box, it’s filled with nooks and crannies where odds and ends are revealed or hidden. It also houses a door and two windows into homes and other locations and contains boxes where dialog is projected from time to time. To stage left is a giant blow-up street map of Middletown, so we don’t forget where we are, and the side walls display replicas of galaxies, which serve well for a scene where the astronaut takes a space walk. Ryan Brodkin’s distinctive sound design ranges from spooky to cosmic to folksy.

The show is not easily described. Its quirkiness is part of its charm. This is a show where the words matter. It is absolutely all about how these people are struggling to understand their lives through conversation with their fellow humans. The performances were all spot on, but Lola Kelly’s scenes with James McHale, and Ned Liebl’s scene with Karen Webster in Act Two were highlights. Director Biship keeps the pace moving from vignette to vignette with no time for contemplation. You just keep rolling with it and enjoy the ride.

The Chance has made its reputation by staging well-known musicals with inventive, updated productions, as well as little known but remarkable plays like this one. Middletown is well worth a look.

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