Seventy-five years after its Broadway premiere, Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” has gained a false reputation as a theatrical slice of homey apple pie — a gentle evocation of a small-town America of intact family values, folksy elders, innocent childhood sweethearts and cracker-barrel wisdom.
But Wilder was actually shaking up Broadway by deconstructing long-entrenched stage conventions, and crafting a boldly frank rumination on death and loss in counterpoint to the fragile beauty of everyday life.
In his recent play “Middletown,” now in its Seattle premiere at ACT Theatre, Will Eno cleverly and sincerely pays homage to Wilder’s classic, borrowing and riffing on some of its signature features. For instance: “Our Town” opens with an address to the audience by a persona called The Stage Manager. We are welcomed to “Middletown” by actor R. Hamilton Wright, in the guise of The Public Speaker.
But Eno is a modern writer with his own shaking-up agenda. His style and worldview here — and in such early works as “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” — owe at least as much to the ironic absurdism and blank-verse poetics of Samuel Beckett and (Eno mentor) Edward Albee, as they do to Wilder’s vision.
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The colorless little American burg he sketches in “Middletown” is not a tightly knit ecosystem, but a generic suburban hamlet where the lonely, the melancholy, the marginalized are in greater number than their well-adjusted, industrious and more content counterparts.
Eno seems to be striving for a contemporary co-mingling of despair and wonder, and a revelation of the underlying interconnections between people and place that coalesced in the poetic sphere of “Our Town.”
Yet what isolates the Middletonians from us is a certain arch remove from the grit of life, and a brush-stroke approach to them. While the witty wordplay and aphoristic metaphysical musings that dominate the dialogue can be often amusing, sometimes profound, the play’s self-conscious navel-gazing starts to feel glib, even predictable, partway into the two-hour piece.
Director John Langs ably guides a cast of flesh-and-blood actors of range and depth to embody these wispy folk on Jennifer Zeyl’s simple cul-de-sac set, and bring them to flickering life.
The most compelling among them are two painfully lonely souls who reach out, shyly and tentatively, to one another. Mary, touchingly played by Alexandra Tavares, is new to town, pregnant and rarely sees her husband, whose job involves constant travel.
She makes charmingly awkward overtures to John, a local handyman, a nervous, haunted loner whom a heartbreaking Eric Riedmann plays as a decent guy trapped in self-negating anguish.
Their mutual attraction but different needs and capabilities are achingly captured in a scene where their conversation is halted and heightened by being unable to hear one another half the time. Talking to oneself is, as Eno often implies, so much easier (if not more satisfying) than trying to communicate with someone else. But in the end, these two almost-friends come through for each other — simply by being present.
A failure of communication underlies a second relationship: the volatile friction between an alcoholic, at-loose-ends mechanic (Ray Tagavilla) and Matthew Floyd Miller’s casually brutal town cop. Though one man is a perennial outcast and the other a credentialed insider, both are emotionally adrift and unable to articulate why.
Renata Friedman, Aaron Blakely, Sarina Hart and Sarah Harlett go about their business as other local citizens, pondering the enigmas of life while performing small kindnesses and delivering obtuse remarks.
But as postmodern as the play gets (the actors turn into audience members chatting about “Middletown” at one point), Eno can’t resist some old-school sentimentality. Marianne Owen is so hearty as a caring, wonder-struck librarian, she makes a stream of platitudes seem fresh. And Wright, as a busy, caring obstetrician, doles out humanistic parenting advice like a reborn Dr. Spock.
I imagine a visit to “Middletown” will be a moving experience for some, and for many yield a valuable epiphany or two. While appreciating Eno’s attempt to glean philosophical sense and community from existential despair, I felt like I was just passing through.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org