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Originally published August 23, 2013 at 5:21 AM | Page modified August 23, 2013 at 11:16 AM

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New director in town finds the poetry in ‘Middletown’

A preview of Will Eno’s “Middletown,” a modern take on “Our Town” that will have its local premiere at ACT, directed by John Langs.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER PREVIEW

‘Middletown’

By Will Eno. Begins previews Aug. 30, runs Sept. 5-29. ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

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There are at least 20 localities in the U.S. named Middletown. The Will Eno play “Middletown” does not take place in any of them.

John Langs, director of the play’s local premiere at ACT Theatre, says the title suggests a kind of archetypal, contemporary Everytown, U.S.A., which Eno portrays in a series of encounters and monologues via regular folk known mainly by their professions: Librarian, Tour Guide, Mechanic, Cop.

Inspired by “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder’s classic drama of life and death in a New England hamlet, “Middletown” reflects on “the seemingly quiet comings and goings of regular people who are wondering, ‘What the hell is going on? What am I supposed to feel and do on this tiny planet? What does my life add up to?’ ” suggests Langs.

“It’s also a celebration of how, in the face of all of life’s uncertainty, people still show up and reach out for each other.”

Eno came to prominence with his elliptical, Pulitzer Prize-finalist one-man play “Thom Pain,” a sometimes frustratingly oblique mock lecture staged at Seattle Repertory Theatre in 2006. His mordant, off-kilter humor was also displayed here in “Tragedy: a tragedy,” a black comedy about a local TV news program covering a possible apocalypse, seen in a 2009 staging by the Satori Group.

The more recent, critically well-received “Middletown” ponders the American experience from a different slant. “What the play lacks in action it makes up for in poetry,” says Langs.

“The effect is cumulative. As it unfolds, it moves you out of a thinking place and into a feeling place. Eno gets you to a level of feeling about life that we’ve all experienced but don’t often have the words for. It’s like being held in a poem.”

In a Boston Globe interview about “Middletown,” the Brooklyn-based playwright described the impulse that led him to write his not easily described script: “It’s hard to be a human being. It’s complicated — and complicated in ways we’ll probably never fully be able to see,” he said. “I wrote this play (as), and mean it to be, a kind of testament to the difficulty of consciousness, or a picture of the complications of the simplest life.”

Known mainly in Seattle for his sensitively wrought productions of works by Shakespeare and Chekhov, Langs says “Middletown” speaks to him as he makes his transition to a new community.

Long based in Los Angeles, the nationally active director moved to Seattle this year to take up his appointment as associate artistic director at ACT. He’s newly ensconced in a Pioneer Square apartment, and still working out the joint parenting of his 3-year-old son.

But after years of traveling here for freelance directing jobs (mainly on Seattle Shakespeare Company shows), Langs reports that he’s delighted to be a full-time resident. “I love it. I couldn’t be in a better place or working with better people,” he tells you with a wide smile. “This is really home.”

The “Middletown” cast — which includes Marianne Owen, R. Hamilton Wright, Aaron Blakely, among others — is composed of “a lovely mix of Seattle stalwarts, and newer local actors,” Langs says.

The set design by Jennifer Zeyl is “literally, a suburban cul-de-sac” and the time period “is right now. These are people who you know. They’re our neighbors,” he says.

Langs has plenty of other projects on his plate. One of his new duties is curating the bustling Central Heating Lab series of ACT-generated and other works, and directing play readings of new scripts that interest him. He will also continue to direct out of town, in Milwaukee and elsewhere, and serve as “an ambassador” for ACT at other regional theaters.

But at the moment, he’s excited by his first mainstage ACT show since becoming the theater’s associate artistic director (the play begins previews on August 30). “The play is an invitation to remember your life is happening all the time. As Emily in ‘Our Town’ says: she didn’t know what a treasure life was until it was gone. I think of ‘ Middletown’ as a delicate little wake-up call to be present. And in that way it’s timeless.”

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published Aug. 23, 2013, was corrected Aug. 23, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that “Middletown” is John Langs’ first mainstage show at ACT; it is his first since being named associate artistic director of ACT. Also, photographer LaRae Lobdell’s name was misspelled in the photo credit.

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