Middletown and the Paradox of Belonging

IhnaMangundayao_MiddleTown-55
// Ihna Mangundayao

On Thursday night, I spent three hours in Middletown, an “ordinary place” in an “ordinary time.” Built on the ruins of two other towns, it claims a main street called Main Street, its own public library and a handful of questionable Native American legends. The citizens of Middletown are talkative, endearingly awkward and friendly enough. They tell me that I’m welcome here, along with the “breathing”, the “beautiful” and the “blue.” But the thought of belonging within Middletown’s quaint, white picket fences — initially, I’ll admit — sounded ridiculous to me.

Middletown, written by Will Eno, is centered on the story of Mrs. Mary Swanson (Marina Horiates ’15), who moves to Middletown with her absent husband and the dream of starting of a family. As director Kyle Yoder ’15 promises us, it is a play filled with questions. Why do we get library cards? What was your first memory? What does it look like when someone falls down a black hole? Middletown’s population introduces itself through this sort of inquisitive small talk. It’s cute at first, and then a bit dull, and by intermission, it starts to feel eerie. And from the first moments of the play, the scenery has me on edge. Why, if these people spend their time planting trees and reading about gravity and eating sandwiches with near-strangers, are their pristine houses and fences and mailboxes bathed in shadows? While the cast of Middletown welcomes me again and again, I can’t help but fear that there is a threatening shift in tone waiting to drop.

The locals blur the divide between audience and stage with genuine warmth. Performers step naturally out of Middletown to address the audience and share bits of their stories. Middletown’s librarian, played by Anya Richkind ’16, does this beautifully when she reads her town’s Native American legends, pausing to guide us by defining what it means for something to last for “many moons” or for a woman to be a “blushing mother.” These are the moments when I am most able to accept Middletown. Sometimes, Middletown’s citizens seem to be trying so hard to be normal that they lose credibility. I struggle to believe their small talk, wrought with nervous gestures and wandering silences and verbal fillers.

The more that Middletown attempts to embrace me, the more unsettled I feel. Middletown seems determined to suck me into its community, but I dig in my heels. I lose interest in its questions and start to ask my own. Could I really belong here in Middletown? I don’t want to belong. I want to believe that life at Yale has made me worldly, that my life is meaningful, that I am anywhere else but in the middle. And that’s when I start to wonder why the prospect of belonging to Middletown bothered me so much, and how, if I rejected this town, did it manage to make me cry?

Middletown is not about library cards or black holes or memories, as the program seems to suggest. It’s not about sandwiches or legends or those white picket fences. If Middletown were really about answering those simpler questions, we could choose not to belong. Instead, Middletown is a play about fear, loneliness and love. It gives us permission to admit the things that scare us, and reassures us that we are never as lost as we think we are. And above everything else, it’s a play about love, a force stronger than the gravity that grounds us, even in the middle.

You can visit Middletown for yourself this weekend, and experience the warmth of its welcome. You’ll hear lots of questions, which Middletown promises, and maybe some answers, which it doesn’t. But more importantly, Middletown will force you to ask your own questions, those you will be struggling to answer long after the last round of applause dies away.

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