Mary Best Reviews

Theatre Review: ‘Middletown’ at The Shaw Festival

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

There’s countless plays driven by characters who are purposefully larger than life. They will go to great lengths and lean toward the overdramatic, sometimes in order to communicate a very small, simple idea. Will Eno’s play, “Middletown,”  now playing at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre at Shaw Festival, does absolutely none of those things.

The Shaw production marks the Canadian premiere of “Middletown,” and it is a fine one at that. It’s a beautiful commentary on the human experience from birth to death and is well worth the quick drive across the border.

Just as you might suspect, it takes place in what we can guess is any small town located anywhere in the country. There’s all the same types of people as there are in any small town, all of whom have spent their whole lives there. Mary Swanson (a lovable Moya O’Connell) discovers this for herself when she visits the library during her first days as a resident. A recent transplant from an unnamed place, she is understandably nervous around her new neighbors.

It is through Mary and her new neighbors that we unearth small nuggets of information about each of the people of Middletown. Most intriguing is the unemployed, solitary character of John Dodge, intelligently played by Gray Powell. Mary and John start a sort of friendship after a few chance meetings, learning more about each other and about human nature.

What this production, directed by Meg Roe and superbly designed by Camellia Koo, succeeds at best is relating every one of these characters to every audience member, sometimes by force. Seriously – the actors come out before the show begins and start making small talk with the audience as if they were also about to watch the play. They use their real names, ask where you’re from and ask about your day. Additionally, they are taking turns drawing a map of Middletown on the center of the stage, located in the center of the seating area. Immediately, you have a connection to these people, and no matter how many characters they end up playing, you remain very aware of the fact that they are, indeed, humans just like you.

O’Connell and Powell lead the talented cast, most of whom play multiple characters. Karl Ang is a comical stand-out during his brief scene as the doctor, and Jeff Meadows is wonderfully mysterious and endearing as the mechanic, a man who seems to be a mess but might just be misunderstood. Claire Jullien and Peter Millard were also a crowd favorite as a pair of delightful tourists.

The ensemble also includes Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Natasha Mumba, Tara Rosling and Sara Topham.

Eno’s strengths lie in his ability to make his characters sound like real people, sometimes witty or awkward and sometimes overjoyed or fearful. Every thought expressed, whether it is a quick apology to a new friend for an awkward comment or a nervous muttering to a doctor about fearing to die, comes out as honest and raw as can be.

The structure of the play can be a little disjointed, mostly in the moments where the fourth wall is broken, but it ultimately succeeds in communicating the themes of the show. No matter how dull or uneventful your town or life may seem, we all wonder and fear the same things.

The Shaw production marks the Canadian premiere of “Middletown,” and it is a fine one at that. It’s a beautiful commentary on the human experience from birth to death and is well worth the quick drive across the border.

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including intermission. 

“Middletown” runs until September 10, 2017 and is presented at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.