UNCW Theatre continues their season with Will Eno’s “Middletown,” directed by Dr. Paul Castagno. The cast brings an interesting blend of audience favorites, like actors Phillip Antonino and Wilson James, with many new faces appearing on the UNCW stage for the first time.
“Middletown” has been linked to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winner and high-school staple of life in small-town America. Whereas “Our Town” embraces a plot arc and celebrates the sentimentality of small-town life, “Middletown” views it through a harsh post-Freudian lens and shies away from a classic story trajectory.
Grover’s Corners is a sweet remembrance of small-town life: when one dreamed big of leaving, but instead stuck around to raise another generation in the same place. But “Middletown” is inhabited by yuppie couples who move to raise children after they have made their stack in the big city. Enter Mary (Erin Armendariz), a young pregnant mother newly transplanted to Middletown whose husband commutes for work to the big city. Her neighbor, John (Wilson James), is an anxiety-filled, out-of-work, Jack-of-all-trades. Instead of the young ingénue with life and hopes in front of her, Mary via Armendariz embodies a disappointed, confused, lonely human being.
Far from the young hero archetype, James’ John is barely functional. In the safety of their town, where the most menacing creature is the local police officer (Robert Smith), they falter and fail to connect. Yet, the both have come to such a place hoping for exactly the connections they fail to build.
Rather than having a stage manger to narrate and manipulate events as in “Our Town,” “Middletown” has a librarian (Jessica Gift) and a scrounging mechanic (Antonino). Together, they seem to serve as a witness and tipping point for local events. Gift must have spent a good portion of her childhood at the library, because her interpretation of the classic frumpy, well-meaning spinster librarian is dead-on, without succumbing to parody.
Antonino turns up the mechanic with a touch of creepy, and a bit of humor and heart that is unappreciated if truly depended upon. Over the past two years, he has become one of my favorite performers to see onstage and yet again brings total commitment and great timing to his role. Together, these foils move the little town and its conscience along the bumpy road of life.
But just in case “Middletown” didn’t have a perspective about its existence, a couple of tourists (Garry Jones and Rhema Easley) have arrived to view it from the outside and weight it against the great sites of the world. Their tour guide (Dottie Davis) has never traveled outside “Middletown”
in her life, but she knows this place intimately. One might even say, molecularly. Davis plays several characters, and she makes each distinct. But it is her tour guide who first captures the audience’s heart with her needs and frustrations so close to the surface. Holding her own against Jones and Easley is no mean feat, but those two have grasped physical comedy by the throat and are not letting go.
Many of the performers play multiple roles, creating an ensemble that feels like it is made up of people who look vaguely familiar but remain just out of reach of intimate friendship. Mark D. Sorensen has excellently costumed this ever-changing group to achieve the constant feeling that you should know them; yet, somehow you don’t. Of course, without distinct performances from a hard-working ensemble, that wouldn’t be possible. It really is an example of the director’s vision successfully manifesting between the designer and performers.
The design and production resources of UNCW are vast. I always anticipate the visual elements of their shows because of whom the institution attracts. Lighting designer Tom Salzman does a great job moving the audience through time and space without blurring the lines of passing time. Distinct locations and emotions for each really stand out, especially the lonely illumination of the streetlight that hangs downstage left.
Randall A. Enlow’s scenic design manages to blend transparency. It almost is unnerving at times, especially when the scrim reveals the houses of Mary and John. Whatever the script obscures with repetitive ramblings, the visual makes painfully clear and unmistakable.
Castagno has focused on the relationships (desired, attained and missed) among the characters most noticeably; it shows in the work the performers bring to life. Eno writes dialogue and monologues that jump in and out of characters’ exterior and interior voices. Probably more realistically than many of us want to admit, he pens long-winded and reparative conversations we have with others and ourselves when we are trying to make sense of things.
Realistic as the script might be, it is not the Pulitzer Prize finalist that his 2005 “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” is. Still, these young performers are so dedicated to the script and performance that their determination and perseverance in a world that fails to produce what they have been promised still holds the audience’s attention. The script also does not utilize a standard plot arc, so much of what is happening is extraneous to Mary and John. Or are they extraneous to everything else? It is not a focused lens that looks upon these people, and it certainly is not a kind one.
Eno is clearly in love with his script, which could easily stand to lose about 45 minutes. But the young talents captivate, so that we are willing to go along with them on this journey.
UNCW Cultural Arts Building
Thurs. – Sun., Nov. 20-23, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinee: 2 p.m.