Middletown at Crow’s Theatre is like Our Town on acid

MIDDLETOWN by Will Eno (Crows Theatre/Shaw Festival). At Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw). Runs to December 1. $30-$55. crowstheatre.com. See listing..

MIDDLETOWN by Will Eno (Crows Theatre/Shaw Festival). At Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw). Runs to December 1. $30-$55. crowstheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN

American playwright Will Enos Middletown is reminiscent of Thornton Wilders 1938 play Our Town if Grovers Corners were awash in some mind-bending substance. Middletown made an impactful Canadian debut at the Shaw Festival in 2017, and now Toronto gets to experience this intriguing production with the same players.

A vast array of characters means some members of the 11-person cast take on multiple roles in the plays two acts. Mary (Moya OConnell) and John (Gray Powell) are at the centre of the story. In act one, Mary has just moved to Middletown and awaits her husbands arrival. Seeking to quell her loneliness, she visits the library where she meets locals, including her neighbour John. The librarian (Corrine Koslo) provides relevant information, as does the layabout mechanic (Jeff Meadows), who shows up after a run-in with the cop (Benedict Campbell). Overhearing conversations inside and outside the library enables Mary and the audience to understand more about Middletown. Act two, darker than the first, takes place at the hospital, and brings deeper insights and higher stakes.

The cast confidently tackles the scripts unconventional rhythms and humour. As the leads, OConnell and Powell create a magnetic bond. Meadows nails the dry, deadpan delivery for lines like, I used to be seven pounds, eight ounces now look at me. Koslos librarian exudes a kindness that never feels sappy, and Fiona Byrne plays a doctor in act two with an affecting mix of gravitas and heart.

There is nothing formulaic about Enos honest, philosophical take on human interaction. The script contains sweet and melancholy moments, but also explores searing truths. Even the parts that dont work as well, such as the excessively meta-theatrical scene right before intermission, seize the imagination.

Director Meg Roe stages the play in the round, placing the actors in the aisles or the audience when not onstage. Its a unique way to maintain continuity. It also makes the audience integral to the production. In fact, an audience member helps determine which actor will deliver the prologue.

The staging is mesmerizing, especially the scene set in outer space that also exemplifies the splendid union of Camellia Koos minimalist set design (cleverly on wheels), Kevin Lamottes mood-enhancing lighting and Alessandro Julianis evocative sound effects and musical compositions.

As a prelude to each act, the performers use white paint to draw a detailed map of Middletown on the stage. Watching it get mopped up at the end poignantly urges us to grapple with our own impermanence.


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