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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper


Or: “Please tell me you’re not getting mystical on me again”

To be perfectly candid I am at a loss to describe Will Eno’s Middletown. I enjoyed myself but am at a loss to pick out what I enjoyed, I saw some wonderful performances but can not articulate what made them wonderful. This is irksome to me, but yet I will hammer it out as best as I can.

My thanks to the clear spoken artists I saw and my apologies for the necessary harm of my hammering.

Probably best described as Our Town for the 21st century, Middletown describes the activities at various points of time in the eponymous American local, with little town pride and little town troubles. The local Cop (Spence) is having anger management issues, the Mechanic (Kern) drowns his sorrows in drink, the Librarian (Silverberg) seeks to gently correct the grammar of the world, a tour guide (Maltby) struggles to present things of interest for two unconventional tourists (Mehiel and Kirkland), Landscapers (Rodgerson) plant trees and Doctors (Mennella and Kirkland) do their best to get people healthy in body and mind. The only remarkable thing about Middletown is the depth of its residences thought on the constant miracles of existence. Mary Swenson (Hefferon), has just moved into this community of working philosophers and takes up with a sad, slightly confused handyman called John Dodge (Wolf). It is their actions and interactions that we follow around the town and through the variances of life and death.

It is not that there is no plot. Eno produces plenty of plots for our attention, like knotted kerchiefs from a magicians sleeve. Indeed part of the play’s charm is its leisurely unwinding of its characters, their interests, their beliefs, their small acts of kindness.

It is not that the plot is trivial. On the contrary part of the play’s power is taking small daily occurrences and magnifying them that we might see their makeup. Indeed one plot point, in light of certain events, is sure to raise some serious thinking indeed. It is rather that even at its most tragic and intimate, Middletown as a script lacks an urgency. It’s long philosophies and woven thoughts are deep and provoking, but they wrap around the attention and arrest any further movement. The effect is like floating on a raft on a hot summer day down a broad river. You are aware of beauty and power underneath you but, stupefied by the heat, the peculiar sensation of being on water, and your own babe like vulnerability you float on, mind unspooling behind you, taking note of sudden rocks or the glory of dappled light on the leaves only in a cursory fashion.

The production does its best to introduce urgency to us, and there are points where we are jolted out of our revery, by a profound emotional moment or a perfect reading of a perfect thought. Silverberg, who has a great gift for authentic statements, has a number of instances that pull us from our revery and tells us, “Yes there are some ideas here that you should take note of, audience!” She is perfectly at home in the Librarian’s self, listens attentively to her scene partners and addressees us with the frankness of professional storyteller. Hefferon has a similar gift for unstudied speech, taking just the right amount of time to compose her thoughts (a devilishly tricky equation for a performer) and measures out pinches of joy or sorrow to show us, never too much and never too little. Spence and Kern both make the best of their characters, unwinding from a Beckettesque comedy duo to fully formed and troubled individuals who, violent or sour as they may be, have captured our attention and sympathies. And it would be very difficult indeed to harden one’s heart against Wolf’s John, a sad sour, as we see him eaten up from the inside by cancerous thoughts and trapped in what he fears to be a life without purpose.

Eno is undeniably a good playwright. He takes the mundane and makes it fascinating, creates puzzling non sequiturial scenes to keep us guessing, and weaves language with Aristotelian insistence upon the living of a life of good conduct. The cast of Middletown are very good at their work and bringing the play to us honestly and with understanding. It is just a shame that the play, while beautiful, is less then the sum of its parts. We float upon it, eddying in thought, and suddenly find ourselves along the bank as our vessel is carried down the river and out of sight forever.

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