At a glance, Middletown looks to be the epitome of average.
There’s John Dodge, the handyman; the town policeman who’s friendly with just about everyone; and others whose mundane day-to-day activities are interrupted only by the occasional tourist. The community of Middletown spends the beginning and end of its lives there, often losing sight of the time in between.
But Middletown, written by Will Eno and produced by Emerson Stage, is an exploration of the time between youth and old age, and the distinctive struggles and triumphs that come with it. Its five performances were staged in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre this weekend.
Through its depictions of characters who fight depression, deal with spouses’ absences, and battle substance abuse, Middletown showed audience members that even the most average-looking locale is much more complex than it appears.
Performing arts professor Sarah Hickler, the director of Middletown, said that the topics discussed in the play—daily struggles that are often overlooked—are especially important for college students to discuss.
“Existential questions about the meaning of life, isolation, and desire for connections are deeply human struggles that we confront every single day of our lives,” she said. “Our hopes, fears, insecurities, desires, failures, successes—they talk about all of it.”
Hickler said the script has an unusual style that depicts the underlying complexity of this town.
“It’s a real hybrid of a few different styles and lies somewhere between heightened text, naturalism, theater of the absurd, comedy, and drama,” she said. “Because it’s such a subtle, nuanced style, it is very important to have a strong ensemble.”
One particular interaction between the landscaper and the cop embodies this combination of styles. In a simple conversation between the two about the placement of a new tree outside the emergency room, they ponder the meaning of being human.
The landscaper says, “There’s that word again. It’s got a real honest ring to it: ‘rock.’ ‘Person,’ on the other hand, I’m not so sure. It feels sort of last minute, doesn’t it? Sort of fleeting? ‘Person.’”
Junior performing arts major Christopher Falcioni said he has seen every Emerson Stage performance during his time at the college. He said this cast’s effective amalgamation of diverse genres is what set Middletown apart from the company’s previous works.
“It felt very real and it felt unlike any other show that you could see,” he said. “I really enjoyed the humanity in it.”
For this production, Emerson Stage also focused on developing the relationship between the cast and the audience, which is unusual for the group, according to junior Sam Terry, who played John Dodge.
Emily White, a junior theater studies major who was the head dramaturge for the show, constructed a display board that invited audience members to answer questions about their hometowns on sticky notes and pin them up.
“The goal is that over time it’s going to fill up with responses, and these are going to be the people that make up Middletown,” White, who also played the role of Sweetheart, said. “Middletown is supposed to be life, which is made up of people, not places necessarily.”
Throughout the performance, the cast broke the fourth wall and spoke directly to the public, forcing audience members to act as a characters in Middletown instead of outsiders looking in. Terry said the cast needed a certain degree of chemistry to engage the audience and create a believable atmosphere.
“It was just important to get a sense of that community that’s present in every town that exists, which develops organically in real life,” said Terry, a performing arts major. “I think that we just try to replicate that as honestly as we can.”
For Emerson Stage, this inclusive approach represented Middletown, which Falcioni said is meant to be a place that all audiences can recognize.
“Everybody is born, everybody dies, and then the middle part in between is sometimes confusing and you can’t really make sense of it,” he said. “But the thing about this show is that everyone has those feelings, and I think that’s something that binds us together.”