IMAGE: Thomas Schoppert, Cindy Gilbert, Heather DeMocker in Lumina’s Middletown. Linda Parker, photographer
REVIEW • BY STEVE LAROCQUE
When I review theater for The Voice, I usually look for productions that will run for several weeks, so that readers will have a chance to see the show, based on (or in spite of) my review.
However, this one is about a show that ran for just one weekend: Lumina Studio Theatre’s production of Middletown, which premiered in New York in 2010.
Why? I thought it high time that Lumina, which has contributed so much to local theater through its teaching and its significant innovations, should get a review in The Voice. So here goes.
Binta Coulibaly, Eva Parks. Linda Parker, photographer
In choosing Middletown, David Minton set the bar high for his actors – possibly on purpose, since his Lumina Ensemble, which includes many double-digit veterans of Lumina productions, is a skilled, disciplined corps of young adult actors. For this play, youth is a definite asset.
Playwright Will Eno has not written an easy script.
It resonates with lyrical celebrations of the everyday miracles of life on Earth, but also with the dark insecurities of people who are not right with themselves.
Adults playing these roles and speaking these lines could easily come across as losers, or, worse, as morbid creeps.
But Lumina’s actors are convincing, with yearnings, self-doubts, and quirks that are believable in people who haven’t figured it all out yet. Their performances fit the characters.
They also show considerable skill in handling the often odd rhythms of Eno’s script.
A lot of the lines depend on ironical humor. You feel as though you’re in a Woody Allen movie, with the next wry observation of the human situation only a moment away.
Act One consists of short scenes that develop the characters, give them opportunities to expound on the universe, the world, and the town (not necessarily in that order). Taking their own sweet time, two stories begin to take shape.
The first is about the pregnancy of Mary Swanson (Tolly Colby), which culminates in the successful birth of a baby boy.
The second is about John Dodge (Ben Lickerman), a sometime plumber whom Mary asks over to look at her clogged sink drain.
Don’t go there – nothing happens, except expressions of longing and frustration, and an obviously metaphorical reference to the sink trap containing “years of stuff.” John unclogs the sink, and they go their separate ways – until Act Two, that is, when Fate brings them together again in the local hospital, she to have her baby, he to recover from a botched suicide attempt.
Keegan Vernon-Clay, Ben Lickerman. Linda Parker, photographer
She has her baby (sans husband, who never does show up), receives admiring visitors, and exhales expressions of hope. He, after enduring some incredibly blasé medical attention, dies alone.
Much of the dialogue sounds like interior monologues, spoken aloud. There isn’t much to indicate that people are actually listening to each other. A lot of lines, in fact, sounded, not like the thoughts of a particular character (which lines really should be), but rather a clever observation that the playwright chose to place in that character’s mouth at that point in the play.
All of this can be a challenge to an actor in building a believable character, but the Lumina Ensemble acquits itself well.
A few performances stand out in my own memory – others may have different preferences.
As the Librarian, Binta Coulibaly delivers a lot of potentially morbid observations, like “Why get a library card? You’re only going to die anyway,” with relentless sweetness, optimism, and crisp diction.
Dominic Massimino, as mechanic Craig, seems to have a trenchant observation about everything from cell metastasis to plea bargains. His life is in considerable disorder, as he rummages through the hospital trash, looking for discarded pain-killers. Massimino does a nice job of making his character an intriguing oddball, but not necessarily a loser.
Tolly Colby, as expectant mother Mary Swanson, seems fated to be the straight woman for every clever line in the play, but she manages to exude newlywed optimism, tinged with expressions of loneliness, facing maternity in the presence of just about everyone except her husband.
And above all, kudos to director Minton, who sets a businesslike pace and guides us through the soliloquizing, the philosophizing, and the action with astute timing. His actors take their pauses when they need to, yet move the story expeditiously along.
Middletown is arguably not the definitive dramatization of small town America for the 21st Century, as Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (which Middletown imitates and borrows from), arguably was for the 20th, but it is a reasonably compelling and thought-provoking piece, with challenges for actors of any age. Lumina gives it a convincing production. I only wish that more people could have had the chance to appreciate this fine ensemble.
By Will Eno; directed by David Minton; set by Jim Porter; costumes by Wendy Eck & Dianne Dumais; lighting by Eve Vawter; sound by Ron Murphy; Lumina Studio Theatre at Silver Spring Black Box, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD.
Cast: Tolly Colby, Binta Coulibaly, Heather DeMocker, Cindy Gilbert, Ben Lickerman, Dominic Massimino, Thomas Schoppert, James Sleigh, Keegan Vernon-Clay, Sylvie Weissman