Clearer from a Distance: Themes of Belonging in Middletown, Frankenstein and the Life of a Mentee

by Joellen Sweeney

I’ve been thinking a lot about belonging recently. It’s something that’s been on my mind since May when I graduated college, but it wasn’t until I watched Third Rail’s production of Will Eno’s play Middletown that I was able to finally put a definition to it the feeling: Belonging is the sense of being woven into the fabric of your environment—threads stitching person to person and heart to heart. The Middletowners spend the majority of the play desperately seeking these connections as they round-peg-square-hole-it through their daily lives. Eno makes a convincing case that the sense of belonging is most clearly understood when it is absent from our lives. Early in the play, the Astronaut views his hometown from space and discovers the profound in the mediocre. In Act II, the Mechanic finds he feels most connected as he revisits a dance from his childhood. In each case, it is the distance that allows these characters to examine the connections that once made them part of a whole.

This outside-looking-in perspective on belonging was evident again at last weekend’s National Theatre Live performance of Frankenstein. The creature cries out, “I am the one who stands outside the door. I see inside. But I daren’t go in.” Like the Middletowners the Creature strives to make meaningful connections with others; in nearly every case he is violently rebuffed. He eventually opts out of society, choosing instead to commission Frankenstein to build him a sense of belonging, corpse-by-corpse, organ-by-organ. The play never gives us a chance to find out if it works, but the idea is certainly intriguing. Can belonging be crafted? Can you will yourself to feel it? Can others create it for you?

I’m finding many opportunities to examine these questions as I transition haltingly into my adult life. As an approval-hungry overachiever, I found it easy to belong in college; affirmations and accolades abounded. My graduating class of theatre majors numbered only five, so we got to know each other well over four years of collaborating. I was a known quantity with them, and that’s how I liked it. Then came May with all its pomp and circumstance, and suddenly I was unknown again in a world that seemed to have little interest in a friendly meet-and-greet. I never realized how much I belonged at college until I left.

I returned home to Portland, only to find that things had shifted in my absence. Like the Astronaut, I viewed home from a new perspective and found that I could no longer relax into the worn-in routines of childhood. Like the Creature, I spent the summer peering in doorways, seeking belonging in new places with new people.

These days I’m a mentee at Third Rail and I’m testing the waters of belonging again just a toe at a time. My fellow mentees are a lively bunch and we’re already cooking up mischief together. The Core Company members each have their own mystique; from the warm and wise to the gruff and grumbling to the sharp and sassy—each one personifying the cool cousin you want to be like when you grow up. It’s inviting to imagine belonging to this zany, noisy, loving family of artists, and with each passing day of rehearsal observation, scene study and office hours, it feels more and more possible. We’ll see what the future holds. For now, we remain—the Creature, the Middletowners and I—huddled on the doorstep, not quite daring to go in.

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