The mundane and the cosmic are side by side in Los Altos Stage Company's production of "Middletown," which creates a quiet place for contemplation through its portrayal of small-town life.
It's a play that travels through time and space with a cast of characters both familiar and slightly odd, including a librarian, a cop who philosophizes into his walkie talkie just to see if anyone is listening, and an astronaut. These and other Middletown residents seek the beauty in the everyday.
Playwright Will Eno, a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist, writes in wandering language that sways between small talk and existential confession. A great admirer of Thornton Wilder's classic 1938 play "Our Town," Eno acknowledges "Middletown's" heritage by echoing "Our Town's" use of direct address and contemplative style.
"Middletown" swerves in its own direction with a preoccupation on lost souls and a creeping sense that the fantasy of small-town life has faded.
The play opens on a sparse set (designed by Kuo-Hao Lo), consisting of a cold blue sky, the silhouette of rooftops, two framed windows, a park bench and a vintage microphone. We meet a character referred to as the "Mechanic," beautifully performed by Ronald Feichtmeir, seated upon the park bench. This young man, who struggles with his sense of reality and his sobriety, has a violent encounter with the neighborhood Cop (Evan Kokkila Schumacher). Feichtmeir's performance embodies a troubled mind. His lines slide out in a start-and-stop fashion and he seems always on the verge of becoming permanently lost.
The play also follows new Middletown resident Mary Swanson (Kama Fletcher) who, pregnant and with an ever-absent husband, searches for meaning in her small-town life. When she meets the anxious and curious "renaissance" handyman John Dodge (Michael Sally), they search for solace with a broken sink and cosmic questions, developing a tender relationship as they stumble through their odd bond.
There is a melancholic vibe to the whole production with the music of Elliot Smith, Fleet Foxes and Iron and Wine transitioning from one scene into the next. The play is a challenge in tempo; I felt like I was a visitor to a series of small moments rather than a cohesive whole. This structure has its power, but can easily cause a production to drag. More dynamic pacing and staging from director Gary Landis might have helped give it a lift.
The confessional nature of the language poses another challenge: It so often reveals the characters' internal monologues that it sometimes seems like there is nothing left to learn. There may be more depth to the script than Los Altos Stage Company's literal interpretation allowed for.
Some of the lead performances come across as rather stiff and flat, with the notable exceptions of Feichtmeir and Dee Baily as Librarian. In her cardigan and beaded reading glasses, her chaotic, fast-talking and warm presence brings the poetic lines back to earth. Her character shines through the poetry.
The rules of the "Middletown" world are absurd and sincere at the same time. When two tourists appear enthusiastic about seeing the sites of the town, their tour guide is so overwhelmed by how little she has to tell them that she describes her own life instead and they love it. The small details, the small mythologies that make up the struggles of quiet lives are what this play is made of. Though it's an imperfect production, it leaves the quietly powerful message that sometimes to talk about the big things we have to talk about the small. What happens in the middle, between life and death? "Middletown" meditates on this intriguing thought.
What: "Middletown" by Will Eno
Where: Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos
When: Through Feb. 21
Cost: $18 - $36
Info: Go to Los Altos Stage Company or call 650-941-0551