"Middletown" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Explores The Human Condition.


(left to right) Ensemble member Tracy Letts with Brenda Barrie in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Middletown by Will Eno, directed by Les Waters. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Chicago, Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Will Eno employs fast-paced witty dialogue in his exploration of the bookends of life from birth to death in “Middletown” which opened Saturday at Steppenwolf Theatre. Anyone who is a fan of improv will appreciate the trigger-quick start as Tim Hopper (public speaker and other roles) steps out in front of the curtain to warm up the audience with a hilarious monologue on “Middletown” and life in general.  Hopper deadpans, “Middletown. Population: stable, Elevation: same. The main street is called Main Street. The side streets are named after trees. Things are fairly predictable. People come, people go.” Average as average can be.”

Average, simple, common…yet complex, extraordinary and pointed. It is these average moments–a trip to to the library, a clogged drain–that are the engine of the play. Outwardly simple, yet just beneath the surface are the lingering doubts, desires and questions–age-old questions.  The philosophical librarian (Martha Lavey) puts it succinctly when she says, “I think we are born with questions and the world is the answer.”

Eno’s first gained national recognition for his play “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” a monologue about the bruised psyche of a lonely guy that was a
finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.  With this play Eno continues his theme of loneliness by examining the psyches of the townspeople of “Middletown”.

Parallels can be drawn between Will Eno’s “Middletown” and Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.  Both plays revolve around small town life yet are different in many ways.  Eno elaborates saying “there are a number of other plays that essentially take a specific location and try to make it stand for the whole world”. In addition, “Middletown” does not have a third act, afterlife or a stage manager as in “Our Town”.

The name of the fictional Middletown is a metaphor for what is commonplace. There are 16 Middletown’s in the United States so Middletown could be anywhere.  In life, in history, in the universe we are all in the middle of something or somewhere.  

The play consists of various characters acting as townspeople with five main characters providing a spring board to view the questions and fears that haunt all souls. The characters speak about the big issues in life in a frank yet blunt manner.  Dashed dreams, loneliness, fear of death all play major roles in the drama as the residents of Middletown try to sort out the mystery of life.  Interestingly, the characters are defined more by their function than their name.  Some characters do not even have names.  There’s the mechanic, the doctor, the librarian, the cop, the plumber, the tour guide–recreating the typical makeup of what could be any town. 


(left to right) Brenda Barrie and Michael Patrick Thornton in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s production of Middletown by Will Eno, directed by Les Waters. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The play opens as the town cop (Danny McCarthy) is roughly suggesting that the scruffy mechanic and sometime criminal with big dreams and dashed-hopes Michael Patrick Thornton find another bench–the irony being the mechanic is in a wheelchair.

Mary Swanson (Brenda Barrie), a young housewife who has just moved to Middletown with her husband, visits the library to get a library card and some books on child-rearing. She reveals to the librarian (Martha Lavey) that she has been trying to get pregnant. The conversation is overheard by the plumber, John Dodge (Tracy Letts) who engages Mary in conversation which will be the first of many encounters between the two–who turn out to be neighbors, living side by side in the haunting effective Edward Hopper-like setting designed by Antje Ellermann.

Slowly and methodically the layers are peeled away and the inner souls are exposed.  Tour guide (Alana Arenas) shows
unimpressed tourists (Tim Hopper and Molly Glynn) the local monument while they search for something that doesn’t exist. Later the mechanic and a doctor (Ora Jones) find common ground on what makes life worth living as the mechanic sifts through garbage behind the hospital, looking for pills. The quick-start and witty dialogue in the first act loses its sharp edge in the second act where most of the action takes place in the hospital climaxing with a too predicable end. Still Middletown is worth a visit. 
Tickets and Information.

Tickets: $20-$73 at 312 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
1650 N. Halsted, 312 335 1650.  The show runs through
Aug. 14 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.; Directed by Les Waters. Running time: 2
hours, 20 minutes.

20 for $20: Twenty
$20 tickets are available at Audience Services beginning at 11 am on the
day of each performance (1 pm for Sunday performances).

Tickets: Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each
show.  Student Discounts: $15 student tickets are available online using
promo code: “TOWN15” (Limit 2 tickets.  Must present a valid student ID
for each ticket). For additional student discounts, visit

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