There’s nothing notably unusual about the lives of the two married couples that unfold in playwright Dan Clancy’s “Middletown: The Ride of Your Life!”
We see them from the 1970s through the near-present, their intertwined stories told in a staged reading. Best friends Peg (Sandy Duncan) and Dotty (Kate Buddeke) and their respective husbands Tom (Adrian Zmed) and Don (Donny Most) are situated at music stands that hold scripts from which they read. There are no sets or props as they discuss their children, their jobs, their marriages and their health. When death comes to take them as they hit their AARP years, there’s little fanfare. The departed simply move out of the light.
But under Seth Greenleaf’s direction, “Middletown,” now playing at the Apollo Theater, packs a visceral emotional hit. It creeps up on you until you realize you are staggered. Clancy’s deceptively simple text shows that even the most ordinary moments are precious, extraordinary, onetime events that, once gone, can never be recovered. It’s emotionally manipulative, but, damn, it’s effective. “Middletown” will leave a lump in your throat and joy surging in your veins.
It helps tremendously that the actors charged with telling this story are so indelible. Duncan, a household name for her storied career spanning stage (“Peter Pan,” “The Boyfriend”) and screen (“The Hogan Family,” “Roots,” “Law and Order”) needs little introduction. Most and Zmed were small-screen staples for decades (Most on “Happy Days,” Zmed — a graduate of Lane Tech and the Goodman School of Drama — on “Starsky and Hutch,” “T.J. Hooker” and “Sharknado: The 4th Awakens,” among others). As for Broadway vet Buddeke, the South Side native has been a force for the good on local stages for going on 30 years.
Peg and Dotty are opposites . Peg’s the wholesome good girl who got all “A’s” in school and actually reads book club selections. Dotty measures the length of her marriage in terms of how many martinis she’s downed. They meet at kindergarten dropoff, Peg weeping as her child walks away, Dotty grinning at the prospect of having some time to herself. They become fast friends, shepherding their husbands into friendship as well. Clancy takes the foursome through a laundry list of life issues: marriage, children, cancer, infidelity, bereavement, financial woes, Alzheimer’s. Nobody yells or stomps. Emotions aren’t operatic, but they ring inescapably true.
Duncan and Buddeke move emotional mountains throughout. Duncan (last seen here in 2004’s touring production of “The King and I”) is the marquee name, and her performance shows exactly why. She’s a powerhouse. Since “Peter Pan,” Duncan’s persona has been that of an ageless sprite — a perky, feisty America’s sweetheart, whether she’s hawking Wheat Thins or starring in “The Muppet Show.”
Here, she shows the range that signature sunniness can make a bit easy to overlook. As Peg moves through life, her perky optimism is forged by the inevitable accrual of sorrows. Duncan is understated and remarkable, a moving presence whose outer cheeriness doesn’t mask inner turmoil.
As Dotty, Buddeke makes peak use of Clancy’s wicked oneliners, nailing the timing and the tone needed for maximum impact. Dotty on menopause: “You crack a window, and you don’t know if it’s to get some air or jump out.” On lying: “Women are taught to please from an early age. Of course, we learn to lie.”
But Buddeke makes Dotty more than a wiseacre. You could write a thesis (and many have) on the questions of self-worth Dotty broaches when she admits she isn’t an especially good mother — and worse — never really wanted to be one. Buddeke doesn’t need a thesis. She fits a world of subtext it into a few sentences.
Most and Zmed serve primarily as foils for the women — Clancy’s male characters are decidedly in afterthoughts territory. Still, Don and Tom are accurate representations of men who grew up in an era when John Wayne represented the masculine ideal. Don is suspicious when Tom mentions his love of poetry. Tom greets his son’s coming out with trepidation. They bond — stoically — over Vietnam.
The highlight for the men comes when Most mines comic gold with Don’s mini-review of “Fiddler on the Roof.” It is scathing and astute.
Toward the final moments of “Middletown,” Peg is alone on stage in a pool of light.
“Let me die, still alive,” she says.
It’s a wish that’s also a reminder. Seize the day. Even when it seems utterly unremarkable.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.