BRATTLEBORO -- Evidence that the New England Youth Theatre has ventured into intense new territory with its production of Will Eno's "Middletown" can be found in what the cast did immediately after Monday's rehearsal.
Rather than gathering the cast around him to give notes on the run-through, director Michael Trzos turned down the lights, cranked up the music and had everyone join him on the stage for several minutes of vigorous dancing.
"Considering the gravity at the end of the play, we kind of like to send for everyone and shake off the sadness," said Trzos, a recent graduate of The University of Evansville Theater Department, who is guiding NEYT's Senior Company through this rich and deeply thoughtful contemporary work about the mysteries of human existence.
Yes, there is gravity in the play, but also incredibly poetic glimmers of light in Eno's astounding play. Inspired by, and sometimes parodying Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," "Middletown" explores the intersecting lives of small town residents and the strange beauty of life while searching for the tiniest shred of certainty and consistency.
It's a play that has already had a profound effect on the young actors bringing it to life.
"It has been weighing on me outside of rehearsals. It is very heavy, but having the opportunity to study the language and get to know the real positive (lessons) has made it easier to deal with the heaviness of the play and apply the lessons to my life," said Maia Gilmour, one of the Senior Company members in the play.
Yes, for all its heavy subject matter, "Middletown" somehow inspires gratitude -- for the small moments of beauty on tough circumstances and for bigger, deeper joys that somehow get lost in the day-to-day.
"It makes me a little more grateful to be alive," agreed cast member Kaelan Selbach-Broad.
Offering a chance for everyone to take part in this extraordinary experience, "Middletown" opens tonight and runs through April 19 at NEYT, 100 Flat St.
Trzos said he first became enamored of the play a few years ago and directed it in his senior year, just a few months after a friend of his had committed suicide. In the wake of that tragedy, Trzos and his friends were inevitably looking for answers.
"It helped clarify some things," he said. "It's not just about confronting anxieties about death. It's about confronting anxieties period.
"It's really about being in the middle of our lives. What's beautiful is being in the middle of our lives," he added.
The New York Times has called playwright Will Eno a "Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation." With a poignant lyricism Eno explores the moments that make up the real stuff of life. In Eno's own words, "by definition, all our lives take place in the middle of those two sort of unknowable events (birth and death), in this great and often unexamined middle." Trzos likened it to Chekhov's work in the window it opens on everyday lives and the powerful truths that are revealed.
He praised the NEYT actors for taking a challenging but beautiful play and for bringing "such a lovely perspective" to their work -- as well as their knack for finding the comedic moments that add lightness to the play.
"I love it because it's something we haven't been able to do before," said Selbach-Broad.
"Middletown" is recommended for ages 13 and up, due to adult content and language.
Performances are Thursday through Saturday, April 10-12 at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, April 12-13 at 2 p.m., Friday and Saturday, April 18-19, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 19 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 for students. Tickets may be purchased in advance at www.neyt.org or at the NEYT box office in person, or by phone at 802-246-6398, from noon to 5 p.m., only on Wednesdays.