Gaye Jeffers, director of “Middletown,” opening at UTC on April 9, has been thinking a lot about connection.
“I was initially drawn to the play because of the questions it raised about community. ‘Middletown’ explores the beauty and awkwardness of living together,” she says. “[Playwright] Will Eno is standing on the shoulders of Thornton Wilder, Samuel Beckett and Luigi Pirandello to speak to a 21st-century audience. He is so eager to include the audience that he includes a scene where the audience gets to speak.”
“Middletown,” Jeffers says, centers on the journey of a newcomer, a woman who has moved to the title town to start a new life. “While some of the characters may be unfamiliar to college students in profession or function, I think the soul and conflict of the characters are readily recognizable,” she says. “We have all been the newcomer, the tourist, the caregiver, the outcast, the clown, the broken.”
Cast members include Mac Smotherman, Madeleine Young, Grace Holtz, Kaleb Moran, Austin Blackburn, Nicole Pavol, Charlotte Grater, Kinnawa Kaitibi, Maggie McNulty, Mario Hoyle, Rebecca Rouse, Megan Cobb, Gregory Jackson, Troy Jensen, Kristina Lumm, Jordan Coleman, Garrett Henson, Kimberly Skoda, Erin England, Gaby Dixon, Trevor Miles, Mariah Driver and John Nichols.
Since the mostly young cast did not have the life experiences of many of these characters, “The actors approached their roles with research,” Jeffers says. “One character is an astronaut. We visited the Challenger center on campus and went through the flight simulator. I think that Will Eno is asking us to confront the labels and find the facts underneath that join us together instead of the assumptions that push us apart.”
Eno’s plays are famous for his facility with language. “Uncovering the ‘Eno style’ has been an assignment. It is extremely fast-paced and pushing forward in every moment,” Jeffers says. “I’ve spent a lot of rehearsal time on hand props and using objects to help the actors tie into the physicality of the character. This supports the language and keeps the actors grounded in this world. Because the play is so episodic in structure, each actor brings their world onstage with them.”
That world also has to be captured in the production’s design elements, and here, too, Jeffers found a link.
“Early on in the design process, I became obsessed with one of the lines spoken by the astronaut as he is orbiting the Earth,” she says. “He says, ‘It doesn’t look lonely from up here.’ I began to envision looking down at the world, as if we are all also the audience. I researched the landscape paintings of Wayne Thiebaud—such beautiful and lovely abstracted views of the world from above. In design meetings with our guest costumer, Val Winkelman, we looked at his work together and this became our color palette.
The circle is an important image used again and again throughout the play, Jeffers says. “So I created a fluid set that seems to be planted in a giant round ‘earth’ of green Astroturf. The world is constantly changing around the characters. I am making no attempt to hide the artifice of the theatre. I think that Eno is asking us to acknowledge that we are all in the audience, watching, observing, communing.”
Jeffers hopes audience members take the communing aspect seriously. “I would love for the audience members to leave the theatre having met one new person and to then immediately go home and meet and greet their neighbors. To acknowledge that in our world of bitterness, fear and cynicism—meaning survives. We are all closer than we think.”
$12/$10 students with I.D. • 7:30 p.m. • April 9-13 • 2 p.m. • April 13 • Ward Theatre • UTC Fine Arts Center Vine & Palmetto Streets • (423) 425-4269 • tickettracks.com