MIDDLETOWN

Birth. Life. Death. Infinity. Playwright Will Eno addresses all of the above in Middletown, his 21st-century response to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and if the Pulitzer Prize finalist tends to take quirkiness to extremes, inspired direction, design, and performances make this Chance Theater Southern California Premiere well worth a trip to Anaheim Hills.

Director Trevor Biship’s personal stamp is evident from Middleton’s densely written prologue, intended to be read by a single “Public Speaker” but divided instead among the Middletownians we’re soon to meet, whose welcome (delivered in playwright Eno’s distinctly eccentric voice) extends to “friends of the deceased, the diseased, friends of the disowned, and of course also healthy friendly people with great skin and congenital heart defects.”

Before long, we’ve observed a local beat cop (Robert Foran) instruct the town’s perpetually drunk mechanic (Ned Liebl) to be “filled with humility, with wonder, and awe” while nearly choking him to death with a flashlight; Middletown’s lifelong librarian (Karen Webster) greet town newcomer Mrs. Swanson’s (Lola Kelly) request for a library card with a “Good for you, dear. I think a lot of people figure, ‘Why bother? I’m just going to die anyway;” and town handyman John Dodge (James McHale) respond to Mrs. Swanson’s inquiry into his line of business with an “I’ve worked graveyards, regular hours, happy hours. Sure, sometimes, I’ll just stare out a window, let a year go by, two years.”

About the only people I know who talk like this are those to be found in Sundance indies or on HBO where quirky reigns supreme.

Fortunately for theatergoers willing to look beneath surface peculiarities, Eno’s Middletownians are rewardingly real in their aching loneliness and in the occasional unexpected optimism they reveal in face of it.

Most significant among them are the abovementioned Mrs. Swanson, who’d be a whole lot happier about the child growing inside her if her businessman husband were ever in town, and the panic-attack-prone John, who just might be the only kindred spirit Middletown has to offer the expectant mother.

We also get introduced to astronaut Greg (Ahmed T. Brooks), the town’s sole celebrity, who waxes “poetic, fragile, and religious” on the planet he observes weightless from space; a couple of local doctors (Brooks and Webster), one compassionate, the other less so; a landscaper (Karen O’Hanlon) with a love of language; a tour guide (O’Hanlon) who philosophizes to a a pair of tourists (Liebl and Webster) on “infinity, asteroids, and your great-grandmother;” and Aunt (O’Hanlon), Freelancer (Brooks), and Sweetheart (Marissa LeDoux), a trio of fictitious audience members whose “intermission” chitchat likely mirrors those about to exit for a drink, a smoke, or a visit to the loo.

Despite the considerable food for thought already inherent in Eno’s script, what truly merits a visit to the Chance are the multitude of ways in which director Biship, his cast, and his team of designers have brought Middletown to life.

Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich’s brilliant patchwork quilt of a set features everything from mundane minutiae to Middletown in miniature to a glimpse of our planet from hundreds of miles into space, enhanced throughout by Karyn D. Lawrence’s endlessly surprising lighting design.

Nicholas Santiago’s video design gives us both the expanse of the universe and the specificity of phrases culled from Eno’s script (one of director Biship’s particularly brilliant strokes). Sound designer Ryan Brodkin’s mix of mood music and effects is equally inspired as are Megan MacLean’s character-defining costumes.

Performances from a mix of Chance Theater resident artists and a few fabulous newcomers could not be more memorable, from the poignancy, pluck, and heart Kelly gives Mrs. Swanson to McHale’s heartbreakingly downhearted John, whose harrowing climactic scene caps what is quite possibly the Chance regular’s finest work to date.

Foran’s terrific beat cop turns out far more than meets the eye, Brooks, O’Hanlon, and Webster shine brightly in multiple roles, and LeDoux delights in her Sweetheart of a cameo.

Last but not the least for Chance regulars who recall Seminar’s megalomaniacal Leonard, Liebl’s deeply affecting alcoholic mechanic and his folksy tourist prove revelatory.

Bebe Herrera is stage manager. Jocelyn L. Buckner is dramaturg.

Middletown may not be my favorite play about small town America (I’d feast on last year’s The Big Meal any day), but with director, actors, and design team at the peak of their respective crafts, it’s one on which adventurous theatergoers would do well to take a Chance.

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Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
www.chancetheater.com

–Steven Stanley
May 3, 2107
Photos: Doug Catiller/True Image Studio

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