Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
By a roughneck cop and a friendly librarian we learn that this is "an ordinary place in an ordinary time," that "our main street is called Main Street," and that this Middletown "is built on the ruins of other Middletowns." By this point, many in the audience must be realizing we have been dropped into an updated version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town; but as we meet more townspeople, newcomers, and tourists and listen to their interchanges that often come from and go nowhere, we realize that Will Eno's Middletown is Our Town on steroids. The everyday, ordinary nature of Thornton's classic has been lovingly and without malice exaggerated to the point of crossing over into a combination of Becket's Waiting for Godot and Sartre's No Exit. The result, in this well-presented Los Altos Stage Company production, is a surreal and strange yet fascinating and endearing look at life where, like the ticks we initially hear from an unseen town clock, time just passes without a lot really happeningexcept birth and death.
In act one, many Our Town-like personalities and sequences occur but most with added quirkiness and pointlessness. People meet in the street or at the library, at the one and only local monument and tourist attraction (a nondescript hunk of stone), on a park bench, or in front of the hospital's emergency room. Words pass, often in sentences that start and peter out before finished in thought. There are smiles aplenty, but there are also many sad, blank looks in downtrodden eyes. We hear a geologic and original native history of the town, have a chance to wonder at the heavens and the infinity of it all, become engrossed in a conversation about molecules, and witness love spring unexpectedly between the two houses before us, the latter due to a leaky sink bringing together two lonely people.
All of this ends with six people in two rows commenting on act one as if they were us, the audience. Their rather aimless comments about the scenes, words, and phrases of that act are totally reminiscent of Wilder's act three graveyard scene in which the question (paraphrased), "What does it all mean anyway" is answered in essence as "Don't bother yourself with that, honey; it doesn't matter anymore."
Act two of Middletown strips away all the familiar semblance of the Our Town, focusing not on the middle parts of life but on the beginning and the end. In stark contrast, we see the lonely nature of entering and leaving the world and realize that every thing in the middle is just stuff meant as fill-in. That middle has joys, sadness, some accomplishments, a lot of disappointments, and much "woulda, coulda, shoulda," but the big defining moments for our Middletown are the start and the finish, presented with little flare, emotion, or comment. It is that matter-of-factness that is truly Will Eno's homage to Thornton Wilder's documented desire that Our Town always be presented "simply, dryly, and sincerely."
And now it is time to meet the townspeople. Evan Kokkila Schumacher is a roaming cop who, with his short stature and puffed-up attitude, is like a bantam rooster patrolling his barnyard. He interacts directly with the audience as if he knows us all (as do a number of the citizens) to give his impressions of the town, to rationalize and apologize for an uncalled for act of fury we witness, and to make sure there are no villains among us. His target of early park-bench aggression is a nondescript character with no name (identified as Mechanic in the program), who also often breaks the fourth wall to talk directly to us. Ronald Feichtmeir is fabulous as this deeply sad yet often smiling sort with eyes that roam and rarely focus and voice that modulates between squeaky and soulful. Continuously nervous in his movement, he tends to blurt things without context that startle, before dropping the subject as if never said. "If I had more self-esteem, more stick-to-ed-ness, I might have been a murderer," he tells us in confidence.
On the opposite end of personality is the delightful librarian, played by Dee Baily, who has the looks and style of a redheaded Imogene Coca. Her toothy smile is as big as the heart she brings to everyone she meets (including her own interactions with us), and she is the one native Middletownian who really seems genuinely glad and proud to be there.
If there is a plot and story to this slice-of-life look at our modern Every Town, it revolves around longtime resident and handyman John Dodge and newcomer Mary Swanson, neighbors and occupants of act one's two houses (and noticeably the only two people to whom our playwright has given last names and non-generic identities). Kama Fletcher is a totally sweet, clearly lonely newlywed of an absent traveling salesman who wants to be a mother and is full of questions about what it really means to be a new mother. Talking often as in self-reflection, Mary asks of her doctor, "What should I be? What should I do?" and makes such off-the-wall but sincere observations about life as "Everything looks like it's misspelled ... even our own names." She finds a new friend next door, John, a self-deprecating and also lonely man who smiles without really meaning to, who looks more often down than out, and who jumps from one subject to the next with total sincerity. Michael Sally is truly the Everyman with no defined purpose in the middle regions of life but with a lot of desire to keep pursuing whatever is there. He is a jack-of-all-trades who pines, "I always wanted to be in something," and admits "I've been reading about identity theft, and I think, 'Just take it'," and who tells Mary, "I get these panic attacks ... It's how I stay in shape." Together, Mary and John narrate act two's beginning and end of life, each magnificently portraying the way the start and finish just naturally happens with little fanfare and no promise of what is next.
The rest of this able cast takes on many roles of roaming townspeople. Michael Meadors, among other persona, is the town's wide-eyed astronaut who must go way into the heavens to see the real beauty of Middletown and the earth where it resides. Todd Wright brings a rubbery face with a million wide-eyed expressions and hands that say volumes in their constant dance as he plays a tourist among a number of other roles. His doting but firm tourist wife is Leslie Newport who, too, brings much humor to a world-traveling visitor who finds more interest in what is under the earth in Middletown than what can actually be seen. Their tour guide is the perky Taylor Sanders who reaches deep to find something that will interest this twosome. Roneet Aliza Rahamim also takes on a number of roles but particularly shines as an understanding female doctor who eases both the coming and the going of life in act two.
Gary Landis has the challenging job of directing this unusual play that spends two-plus hours pretty much going nowhere; and he has overall succeeded in keeping a flow that holds attention even when the script is moving in very odd directions. Kuo-Hao Lo's set makes the needed Our Town connections and also allows easy shifts into a number of mini-scenes both around the town and above in the heavens. Music that cannot be named and might be from some elevator, somewhere, sets the reflective mood effectively (thanks to Chris Enni as sound designer), and Joseph Hidde's lighting provides ongoing and climactic reference to the great universe that houses this Middletown.
Los Altos Stage Company has taken a bold risk in presenting Wil Eno's unconventional Middletown, with not a lot of action but with a lot to grab attention along the way. The script is not without challenge, and it may at times roam a bit far afield. But the final result of this fine production is an evening well spent, even if at times bordering on tedious, and a play that should be seen.
Middletown continues through February 21, 2016, at Los Alto Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, CA. Tickets are available online at losaltosstage.org or Monday - Friday, 3 - 6 p.m. in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.