Review: Middletown (Crows Theatre/Shaw Festival)

Middletown asks existential questions of the human condition, now on the Toronto stage

In partnership with Crow’s Theatre, the 2017 Shaw Festival’s staging of Will Eno’s poetic observation of small town life, Middletown, gets a remount at Streetcar Crowsnest. Meg Roe’s simple yet immersive production feels carefully measured. The ensemble cast brings weight and purpose to the deceptively mundane, seemingly random interactions between townsfolk. Here is a space where the minutiae of everyday life is given cosmic significance. 

And I wanted to like it more than I did.

The first act had me quite firmly. As pregnant newcomer, Mary (Moya O’Connell), settles into the offbeat rhythms of the town and its inhabitants, I was intrigued and enchanted. Her budding friendship with the deeply sad yet bravely cheerful local, John (Gray Powell), is heartfelt and natural. Everything feels genuine and understated. The grand, existential implications are conveyed with a light, whimsical touch.

Then, just before intermission, the play becomes explicitly self-aware for one scene. Generally, this doesn’t bother me and I’ve seen it done masterfully. Here, though, it doesn’t seem fitting. There are a handful of fourth-wall breaks peppered throughout, but this blatant meta aspect never returns. It’s a set-up with no payoff. And I didn’t see the purpose in the sudden diversion. It doesn’t further the story, but seems a misguided attempt to prompt the audience to think about the story. I imagine those so inclined, however, were already doing so.

At this point, the play lost me and the second act failed to recapture my imagination. The characters and their dialogue now felt like vessels for the play’s wisdom. Don’t get me wrong, there is value in the human truths the characters stumble upon as they try to connect, but I would prefer to sift through their interactions to find these truths for myself rather than have them laid down for me.

So, why did I find the first half so much more engaging? I think it’s this: So much subtle characterization and world-building is necessary to make Middletown an emotional and physical reality; at first, the dialogue is focused on achieving that. But then, with people and place firmly established, its focus shifts to making precious statements about the human condition.

I appreciate the ambition of Eno’s play. I found beauty in his contemplation of the immense yet intimate space between birth and death. There are some very quirky and poignant moments that struck a chord with me. And I loved the fluid movement of minimalist scenic elements. I was particularly awe-struck by a scene that brought us to space with a lonely astronaut drifting through stars.

The whole production features a rich atmosphere that hovers gracefully between the earthly and celestial.

Listening to fellow audience members discuss the play as I headed out, I discovered that most people in attendance were quite thrilled with the production. It seems my guest and I might be in the minority here with our tepid response. 

You should experience Middletown for yourself. It may strike the right nerve in you, the one that lay just out of its reach in me.

Details:

  • Middletown is playing until December 1, 2018 at Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Ave.)
  • Shows run Monday through Saturday at 8:00pm, with Saturday matinees at 2:00pm
  • Tickets are $30 to $55
  • Tickets can be purchased by phone (647.341.7390) or online

Photo of Gray Powell and Moya O’Connell by David Cooper.

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