(Above: Part of the cast of “Middletown,” the opening play of Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s 2017-18 season. Left to right, Joel Ibáñez, Sharon Sless, Erica Towe, Russell Dyball, Storm Kennedy, and Robert Hirsh)
By Randi Bjornstad
Oregon Contemporary Theatre’s first place of the 2017-18 season opens with a couple of the company’s “pay-what-you-can” preview performances on Sept. 20 and 21, with the official opening on Sept. 22, followed by a gala after-show party.
The play is “Middletown,” a comedy with truthful underpinnings by Will Eno, “who is one of the playwrights we’ve been keeping our eye on for awhile,” OCT associate producerTara Wibrew said.
“I thought Season 25 was stellar, but I’m really looking forward to Season 26,” Wibrew said. “One of the most exciting things to us is bringing newer plays and playwrights to the stage, and Will Eno is a good example.”
Eno’s work has garnered quite a bit of attention, including his share of awards and nominations. His play, “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in drama in 2005. “The Realistic Joneses” was performed on Broadway in 2014 and won a Drama Desk Special Award, the same year that his play, “The Open House,” appeared Off-Broadway and won the Obie Award for playwrighting.
“Middletown,” which had its debut Off-Broadway in 2010, is the story of a small town filled with ordinary people, the things they think about, what they do and don’t say and how their lives mesh or not as they go about their daily activities and meet their personal challenges.
The plot centers around Mary Swanson, who has just moved to Middletown, about to give birth to her first child, and eager to develop the kind of relationships that small towns always have been assumed to offer.
But life there is not that simple, or always satisfying in the way that Middletown’s inhabitants might want or expect.
The play is a comedy, to be sure, but in a form that both points out the absurdities and mysteries found in ordinary human beings.
The cast includes 12 actors, who among them play 22 parts. Several — Erica Towe, Russell Dyball, Storm Kennedy, Robert Hirsh, Kari Welch, Jerilyn Armstrong, Sharon Sless and Kelly Oristano — have appeared on the OCT stage before. Shawn Bookey, Sabrina Gross, Matt Holland and Joel Ibáñez make their first appearances with OCT in “Middletown.”
Wibrew directs the show, with an artistic team made up of Jerry Hooker on scene design, Jeanette deJong handling costumes, and lighting and projection by Kat Matthews. Margot Glaser is properties manager, with sound design by Bradley Branam. Jennifer Sandgathe is the production stage manager.
A review in the Chicago Tribune once described the play as “reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town,’ if it had been penned by Dr. Seuss and edited by Samuel Beckett.”
“Middletown” is the first of six shows in OCT’s new season.
“Our artistic director, Craig Willis, is always on the lookout for interesting things that we haven’t done before,” Wibrew said. “He reads a lot of plays and sees a lot of plays, and he talks to directors and playwrights about their productions.”
The OCT staff and board of directors frequently have a list of at least a dozen plays under consideration, and from their input and his own artistic judgment, Willis crafts the season, Wibrew said.
“It’s usually things that haven’t been done before — we like to look for bold choices,” she said. “But Craig (Willis) also considers what he thinks our patrons want to see and what the board and staff think will be the best choices.”
After “Middletown,” the lineup for the rest of the OCT season will be:
- “Marjorie Prime” by Jordan Harrison — Nov. 3-25
- “The Flick” by Annie Baker — Jan. 12-Feb. 3
- “Successful Strategies” by Andrea Stolowitz — Feb. 23-March 10
- “Buried Child” by Sam Shepard — April 6-28
- “Hand to God” by Robert Askins — May 18-June 9
“These are all wonderful plays that make big statements, but in different ways,” Wibrew said. “It’s a challenging season — I think these plays will get audiences talking.”
When: Pay-what-you-can preview performances at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 20-21; opening night show and reception at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 22; additional 7:30 p.m. shows on Sept. 23, 28-30, and Oct. 5-7, 12-14; 2 p.m. matinees with post-show “talk-back” on Oct. 1 and 8
Where: Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway in downtown Eugene
Tickets: $20-$35; $15 for students (except opening night), available at the box office, 541-465-1506, or online at octheatre.org/