In the shadow of a town’s insecurities, an awkward but honest quest for human affection and affirmation is laced through with humor and wonder at the stars. Ian Sutherland ’18 directed 10 student actors from Myswyken Salad Theatre Company in a production of Middletown by Will Eno.
The first act introduces Mary Swanson (Avery Evangeline Baker ’19), a lonely but optimistic newcomer to the town, as she strikes up a close friendship with John Dodge (Chaz Mayo ’18), a talented but anxious handyman with the mind of a philosopher. Their relationship is framed by other characters who seek to define the reason behind reason.
Early on, these quests into the absurd are accompanied by colorful projections of star clusters and the aurora borealis that hover above the characters as they wonder at what it means to be alive. Two people sitting on a bench are juxtaposed against the enormity of the night sky, then that gaze is inverted when an astronaut (Will Ibele ’18) spends his time in space thinking of the messy beauty of the earth and simple memories of Middletown. His rocket ship is a cardboard box drawn over in childlike crayon drawings.
In act two, Baker and Mayo’s characters lie on parallel cots in the hospital. Mary is about to give birth, and John has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt results in an dangerously infected wound. Mary names her child John. She asks her doctor, “What should I do?” to which the doctor replies with one of the core messages of the show: “Love is all — give him love... and be forgiving of his nature.” As this is said, Mayo, whose character is afraid of dying alone, is writhing on a cot with a fever and difficulty breathing.
John Dodge dies on stage at the same time as Mary’s baby is handed to her. Between this spectrum of life and death is a black wooden box, which earlier in the show was said to be the only monument in Middletown. The monument was formerly called “sad and beautiful” by tourists and was deemed proof of the intimacy and continuity of life.
In the final scene, the mechanic (Katie Howrey ’19) who admitted that her greatest desire was to be loved and feel beautiful, smears primary colored paint onto the black box, creating a circle of blended waves that match the colors of the projected image of a sunset of wolves. When the mechanic is caught painting the monument, she simply raises her messy arms and remarks that she feels beautiful. In that moment, the audience can finally understand the humanity behind the the words of the librarian (Annika Isbell ’19): “The secret to living is to learn how to live in the middle of ideas.”
The production left many determined to show grace to and hug those around them, because ultimately everyone is looking for someone to tell them they’re not alone.