For director Mark Seamon and acting coach Wendy Barrie-Wilson, the topics of birth and death existed well beyond the pages of Middletown, a play by Will Eno, that they were preparing over the summer for production over the past two weeks.
In June, Seamon and his wife Lauren welcomed their second son. Just weeks later, Barrie-Wilson lost her mother to a six-year fight with Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Suddenly we found ourselves having to work together on a play that’s literally about life, death, and everything in between,” said Seamon, who is also a professor in the theatre department. “We both had a lot to say because we had just experienced such significant life moments—and births and deaths stick with you.”
Seamon first suggested that Eno’s 2010 play be done at Denison because it speaks to the college sensibility. “I know and I like a lot of plays,” said Seamon, “but my first consideration when deciding what play we preform is the type of play that would be interesting for students to perform, to work on, and to come and see.”
While Eno includes existential and absurd elements in his work, the language of the play and its characters are “still recognizable” to a young audience, said the director.
The playwright, who is often called the “Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart Generation,” has become famous for his ability to balance lofty topics with simplicity. The phrase, coined by New York Times’ critic Charles Isherwood, compares Eno to Beckett, a writer well known for his play Waiting for Godot and employing the Theatre of the Absurd, a tactic that uses seemingly meaningless dialogue or plot to reinforce the idea that life is just as meaningless.
While there are similarities between the playwrights, Seamon argues that there are large differences as well. “Eno’s trying to make absurdism and existentialism relevant and accessible to young people.”
This approachability, according to the director, allows audience members to explore life’s meaning. It is different for everyone, of course, yet it has its similarities because all lives exist in the same ordinary reality.
In fact, by focusing on conventional people — a librarian, a policeman, and a mechanic, for instance —and regular occurrences — fixing a kitchen sink, checking out a library book — Eno allows audiences to view the everyday as extraordinary.
“He wants us to walk away with an appreciation of how lucky we are to be here, how lucky we are to be alive, how amazing it is to be a human being, and how quick we are to forget that,” said Seamon.