By Perry Tannenbaum
“Daytime. Night-time. Enough. I get it.” Folks in Will Eno‘s Middletown may remind you at times of the stark simplicities of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. There are definitely absurdist and existential ideas running amok in Eno’s quaint American village, but there were other modernist ideas vying for our attention as actors in the nine-member ensemble swerved in and out of character, broke the fourth wall, or simply joined us in the audience as loudmouth spectators. Disbelief was not to be suspended for long in this amiably odd student-directed production by the Davidson College Theatre Department at the Barber Theatre. Nor was information very useful here, though the question of where we were was quickly addressed and muddled. Among the candidates instantly put forth by Google in Connecticut, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, or Rhode Island, Eno’s Middletown is none of the above – or possibly all of the above. “Middle” can certainly mean average in an Our Town way, or it can mean between in an existential way, at the crossroads between the past and future, the intersection where all times meet. Now.
Eno’s playfulness wasn’t long in coming. His Cop broke the fourth wall in welcoming us as “Ladies and Gentlemen,” but the rest of the ensemble, planted in the audience, went about exhausting all the other possibilities of whom the Cop might be addressing – to such an epic length that we might have forgetten this catalogue was nothing more than a greeting. Then we came to the scene that most reminded me of Waiting for Godot. Sauntering out of the audience, the Cop encountered the Mechanic who was loitering in the middle of the stage. The interrogation that followed mixed silliness, slapstick, and brutality in a fashion that resembled the Beckett recipe. It also served to introduce us to the two subspecies that inhabit Middletown, those who have settled positions in life and those who are in transition, in between what they used to do and what might come next. Not surprisingly, Eno had us empathizing with his unsettled middle people. Indecision seemed to equal sanity in his universe.
Dressed as a mechanic, the Mechanic was no longer working as one. Perennially holding a beer bottle in his hand, Sam Giberga showed us that the Mechanic might have a buzz going, but not enough for Matt Hunter as the Cop to toss him in the slammer. The costume and the beer bottle also told us, as the evening rolled along, that despite the Mechanic’s search for a new direction in life, he wasn’t pursuing it at warp speed. Near the end of this bittersweet comedy, a parade of other actors – out of time or in a dream – came by and dressed the Mechanic in something emblematic of his or her profession. One of the nurses helped the Mechanic into a lab coat, the Astronaut contributed his helmet, the Librarian draped a book bag on his arm, and the Cop surrendered his walkie-talkie. All directions were possible in this fantasia.
In subsequent appearances, Hunter managed to convince me that the Cop’s unexpected, random brutality toward the Mechanic had been as much the result of boredom as anything else. Actions by the Librarian, the Astronaut, and the nurses underscored the point that people are basically going through the motions at their jobs. The people who interested Eno the most were those in search of motions through with to go. Futility abounds: in a scene with a tour guide and two tourists, it was hard to tell who was trying hardest to help the other out. None of them had much of a clue.
After the Cop chased the Mechanic off the stage, Mrs. Swanson arrived, a newcomer to Middletown. Hers was a more consequential scene, for she not only met the Librarian, who was eager to fill in Mrs. Swanson on the nebulosities that form Middletown’s history (Vickie Williams was a marvelously professional and preoccupied Librarian), she also met John Dodge, another listlessly searching townsperson. Not yet visibly pregnant, Mrs. Swanson was the embodiment of expectation, but her husband was never around to share her anxieties or her bliss. John, on the other hand, was perpetually downcast and lacking in initiative. Knowing Mrs. Swanson’s story and hearing that she was naming her unborn son John, John still didn’t act on his obvious affection for her.
These two central roles were the best suited for collegiate actors, and both Savannah Deal and Ryan Rotella were superb. Only Deal was truly age-appropriate last year when the two appeared in Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Here, their unaffected styles made their scene work even more satisfyingly. Rotella’s hangdog approach to John gave the untethered man a cuddly, pathetic appeal, while Deal’s slight cheerfulness always seemed undercut by her disorientation, uncertainty, and profound loneliness. The common bond that united both subspecies of Middletowners, both the shiftless and the settled, was the loneliness that made Mrs. Swanson and John appear to be natural soulmates.
For this production, Barber Theatre was configured in stadium style, half the audience facing the other half with the stage in the middle. Scenic designer Neil Reda didn’t often have much to show us in the middle, but for Act I, he set up two colorful pairs of housefronts facing each other from opposite ends of the stage, about the size of a changing cabin you might rent at the beach. As the 10-minute intermission ended, ensemble members planted themselves at both sides of the house to discuss what they – as audience members – saw in Act I. It wasn’t a particularly enlightening discussion, of course, digressing into a guy on my side of the theatre marveling at the memory of one of the women on the other side. A latter-day Pirandello prank, perhaps?
During the interval, however, Reda’s two set pieces were swiveled around, revealing yet another aspect of what Middletown might be. On the other side of the exterior doors we saw in Act I, there were now two hospital rooms, one for Mrs. Swanson and one for John. In one room, there was an impending birth, while on John’s side, there just might be an impending death. Eno gives us a grimly humorous takeaway here: if you’re thinking about suicide and not absolutely sure you won’t have regrets, use a clean knife to better ensure your recovery.
Of course, the bigger takeaway was the one laid out before the audience. Middletown is that seemingly large space between birth and death, the entirety of our awareness. One of the ensemble members comes onstage to plant a little tree there, but it is whisked away before the important action resumes.