'Middletown' holds a big mirror to passive Seattle

A hilarious and touching take on the classic "Our Town," ACT's 'Middletown' will worm its way into your passive Seattle brain.
A hilarious and touching take on the classic "Our Town," ACT's 'Middletown' will worm its way into your passive Seattle brain.

Meet Mary and John. They're neighbors in small, quiet Middletown.

Crosscut archive image.

Mary (Alexandra Tavares) is married, John (Eric Riedmann) divorced, but both are desperately, hopefully, awkwardly seeking human connection. When Mary moves to town with her conspicuously absent husband to start a family, John cannot help but fall achingly in friend-love (might there ever be something more?). Mary is interested, but measurably more cautious, the loneliness of small-town life made more bearable by the prospect of a new baby.

But "Middletown" is not just a bullseye portrayal of loneliness and the earnest yearning of human connection. It is also, consistently, truly funny. Will Eno's script is masterful in its wry, ironic truthtelling and its simple, yet poetic lines. And the play's actors, under the direction of John Langs, deliver the timing, levity and emotion necessary to pull them off. 

Crosscut archive image.Middletown the place is a suburban everytown. The local cop (Matthew Floyd Miller) is bored to irrational violence he will later regret; the library desk is its social switchboard (with Marianne Owen as librarian) and the token town drunk (Ray Tagavilla) is the most lucid of them all — the only one who knows what he's searching for. ACT's "Middletown" though, takes these tropey characters, equips them with sharp, insightful humor and impeccable timing and looks darkness directly in the eye.

Riedmann and Tagavilla in particular move seamlessly from the wrenching to the mundane, their self-conscious vulnerability matched only by their comedic delivery. Tavares is just self-centered enough, Owen is the epitome of librarian perk and the always delightful R. Hamilton Wright (who plays, in no particular order, a doctor, a public speaker, a tourist and NASA ground control) seems to steal every scene in which he appears. 

Not everything is perfect. Periodically, Middletown's residents ignore theater's supposed fourth wall to convey humor, emotion or regret, the inconsistency of which might be jarring to some. A self-reflexive intermission scene just before "Middletown's" actual intermission seems intended to encourage conversation about the play, but is hard to swallow and causes some character confusion later on. These are just slight catches in "Middletown's" magic, though.

The humanism the play imparts far outweighs any flaws. Despite the passive oppression of Middletown's peaceful cul de sacs, well-paved roads and uniform houses (kudos to Scenic Designer Jennifer Zeyl and Lighting Designer Ben Zamora), its people find an intimacy with one another that slides from exuberance to despair and back again.

It is an intimacy that stays with its audiences past the theater's dimmed sacrosanctity and worms its way into their bus rides and checkout line conversations. Which is why Middletown should be required reading for Seattle's residents: This is a city that could use more generosity — not just of courtesy, but of that terrifying beast, vulnerability. 

Photos courtesy of Chris Bennion


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, Q13Fox.com and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.