Middletown could be any town, PCC’s fall production of the Will Eno play comes at a perfect time following the aftermath of the pandemic, and highlighting the mentality of how we are separate but together.

After a long break from live theater performances, PCC comes back strong with a play showing us how we are still connected, even when we feel we are alone.

“It is great to be back live. PCC produced 4 online plays last year and they were successful, but there is no real replacement for having performers and audience members in the same space at the same time,” Will Hickman director and assistant theater professor said.

Guests arrived to see lights strung above the PCC’s Jameson Amphitheater while an Elliot Smith song played quietly through the sound system. Chairs were spread out in twos throughout the theater’s tiers. Some guests brought their own chairs, while others sat on blankets they brought from home. Voices hummed in anticipation for the play to begin. The lights dim and the actors took their places on the stage.

Aziraphale (Z) Koukache warmly addresses the audience with the customary ladies and gentlemen but takes it a step further by pointing to more astute characteristics of who we may be, whether that be beautiful, drunk, high, blue or even animal lovers, the list goes on. This opening scene is particularly noteworthy because the play, Middletown, is an interpretation of the complexity of life and where and how the characters fit into it. An honest portrayal of the human condition, to love, laugh and to be lonely.

The set design worked well with the skyline and the surrounding noises of Pasadena life. The actors played up the loud rumblings of cars and planes flying overhead connecting reality with each scene. The minimalist set depicted a simple life in small town America, with its backdrop of two homes as outlined with wooden beams. The actors seamlessly moved around the stage, from the beamed homes to the green asphalt on the floor.

In the first scene we are met with the arbiter of justice, the Middletown cop played to perfection by Daniel M. Grimaldi. Grimaldi’s portrayal of a menacing cop that patrols neighborhoods made you sit up straight in your seat. He owned his baton and that role, it was easy to forget that he wasn’t actually policing the play and it’s audience members. Despite his stern demeanor, he delivered a comedic image of a cop who takes his job very seriously.

“I thought he was a really interesting character, he kind of balanced like darker comedic elements, especially with the drama. It was kind of like a nice break between a lot of the existentialism,” audience member Amanda Hong said.

The play’s storyline centers mostly around John Dodge played by Adam Montague and Mary Swanson played by Emily Phan. Mary is new to Middletown and is optimistic about settling in and starting a family with her absent husband. She meets John who is painfully endearing and we immediately notice a spark between them. Both characters are lonely but especially John who is constantly trying to underplay how blue he really is. Phan and Montague’s chemistry was almost tangible with the sweet smiles and shy stares they shared. As an audience member you yearned for them to connect every time they encountered one another and the disappointment when they never did pierced through us all as much as it did John.

Montague immediately wins your heart as John and takes you on a journey with him in this role. You want him to be with Mary, yet you know he never will. Mary is exceptionally kind to everyone she meets. The absence of her husband inclines you to want her to stray and to be happy. Even in her darkest moments Mary is able to find a positive light to look towards, something John couldn’t do. This may be because Mary gets pregnant and gives birth to a boy in which she names John. Phan portrayed the lonely but loving mother with ease, showing that even in times of uncertainty there is still love to be given. Since John never truly expresses himself, leaving him to never reach out to Mary to build on that initial spark, he dies alone. You wonder in that moment if he was only ever meant to be a spark because when Mary needed him, he just couldn’t bring himself to be there for her. John Dodge represents those what-if memories in us all, those situations where we desire to love more and reach out to those who are near to us, in his case Mary who lives next door, yet we swim in our own uncertainty and wallow in loneliness riddled with distraction.

Certain elements of Middletown show us that there is more to the town’s ordinary history than we realize. A couple played by Nianna M. Nicholson and Koukache, who have traversed the globe, pass through hoping to learn some interesting facts about this small town. The tour guide played by Aylah Robinson, is unsure of what to tell them since she has never ventured outside of the town’s borders. The couple convince her that there must be something “monumental” that has yet to be considered commemorative. The scene highlighted the concept of how we may underestimate our own stories until someone from elsewhere tells us that we have a story to tell too.

After watching the characters feel insignificant in this small town we travel to outer space with Middletown’s local claim to fame Greg, an astronaut played by Sam Campbell who is orbiting the earth as time passes on below. The lighting dims and Campbell comes in as a terrestrial starman to shed some light on how beautiful life is from so high and how connected we all are. “It doesn’t look lonely from up here. Everything looks right next door,” Campbell said, reminding us of those lonely neighbors John and Mary and maybe ourselves as well.

All the characters end up at the hospital in the final act, for various reasons, some for their jobs and others because of circumstance. Perhaps the most seemingly lonely character was the town drunk who was also the local mechanic played by Matthew Baun. When we thought we almost lost him, as he searched the hospital’s trash can to get rid of his blinding headache he was tossed a bottle of pills from a doctor played by Caroline Kim. Albeit the compassion wasn’t portrayed in a healthy way, we are reminded that life is messy and doesn’t always play out the way it should.

The cop re-emerges and orders the mechanic/addict back inside the hospital to fulfill his community service. Then our crotchety policeman encounters the town’s librarian who was awaiting the birth of Mary’s child. The librarian played by Brandi Powell plays out the reassuring voice of reason, who is able to soothe and connect with each character with her warmth, even grouchy cop. She harkens to the death of his mother, which he still is grieving and we get to see a more complex side of this intimidating character.

The finale showed the joys and heartache as Mary gives birth, John dies and for a moment we think that we might meet Mary’s husband but it is only the charming janitor. The mechanic dances high on meds and for a moment we see what it must look like in the mind of a lost soul. Perhaps he wasn’t lost at all but needed another chance. The mechanic Baun dances around the stage, free from the constraints of inhibitions and kneels in front the most inhibited of them all, the deceased John Dodge. He showed that John’s loss was a tragedy and played on our heartstrings with every bow of his head at the foot of John’s bed.

A beautiful rendition of Will Eno’s play, with acting on par with broadway. PCC’s production of Middletown was a successful return to the stage and gives us hope in a time of doubt.

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