‘Almost, Maine’ at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse is almost perfect
Just when I was starting to believe the posts that I was a cynic, along comes an unhip, home spun slice of chilled apple pie called Almost, Maine.
Did you know this is the most popular play in America? Me either.
Take one part Northern Exposure, one part Norman Rockwell, one part Our Town, one part Twilight Zone and two parts Tom Width. Shake (do not stir) and what you have is a witty, charming, totally decent theatrical work that comes magically close to showing us what simple life and love really feels like.
This is a play you don’t know unless you have a kid in high school where it was the No. 1 most-produced play from 2010 until 2013, according to statistics compiled by Dramatics magazine. During the 2013-2014 school year, it was No. 2, edged out by a little number called A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
According to the Dramatists Play Service website, which owns the rights to the production, there have been 2,777 productions in the United States and Canada alone since it began licensing the play in 2008—that’s more than one production per day, every day, for seven years.
The play, written by John Cariani is beautifully structured in 9 short absurdist vignettes that take place over one star-filled night.
“Almost” is the name of the territory in Maine. Too populated to be wilderness and too unpopulated and slow to incorporate itself, the geography is “almost” a town. Yet it seems that this place that isn’t quite anything is still a place where you can find everything that matters.
It’s is a place where the freezing temperatures require the warmth of people’s hearts to survive.
Virtually all the scenes in Almost, Maine have a less-than-subtle metaphorical twist or set piece. One character carries her broken heart in a paper bag, only to happen upon a repairman who quickly falls in love with her. A man is physically unable to feel pain until he begins to fall in love. In a scene that’s recently caused some controversy, two longtime male friends literally fall in love with each other, repeatedly collapsing onstage at the scene’s climax. One couple, recently broken up, has this exchange:
GAYLE: (she’s been in a bit of a state) I want it back.
GAYLE: All the love I gave you? I want it back.
LENDALL: (Little beat.) I don’t understand–
GALE: Yours is in the car.
She brings his in: 11 over stuffed pillow cases. “Pillows of love,” if you will (and you shouldn’t).
Decidedly over cute. Bah, Humbug. But wait…
What happens is silly, but never cheesy. You find yourself smiling. You smile because the complications are adorable and you are touched. Reduced to its simplicities, the human experience is very rewarding to watch.
Almost, Maine does focus on love and relationships if anything. All of the stories center on the strange dance of attraction and mating or the disintegration of the same.
Maybe not so improbably, the play has found itself recently embroiled in scandal. A high school in North Carolina (home of the recent gender inflexibility laws) canceled its production over local protests over the scene “They Fell,” (where the two buddies find they are most happy with each other) and which very lightly deals with homosexuality (though it must be said the scene seems to conflate love and friendship).
The structure of nine scenes is perfect for high schools. You can have a large cast and each scene has three or less actors on stage at once. At Swift Creek Playhouse (and most other professional venues, I would imagine) the cast is reduced to four.
Lucian Restivo, Louise Mason, Matt Hackman and Mariea Terrell gel beautifully as an ensemble. Never all on stage together, we get every other combination possible and with one exception it all works.
Hackman and Mason are delightful as the soon to be married couple in “Getting It Back;” very Tracy and Hepburn. Wit and sincerity is a great combination. Mason was all tough talk and business until Hackman defrosted her surliness and romantically took her to the ground at the end.
Restivo and Hackman (pictured below) were hilarious drinking buddies in “They Fell.” Northern Maine can sound a good deal Canadian. They reminded me of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as the Mckenzie brothers on the old SCTV comedy shows. Good chemistry. Good brew.
Terrell gave very strong and funny performances, especially in “Seeing the Thing” where Lucian Restivo turns her virgin tomboy into a hot tamale.
Only one piece fell a little short. “The Story of Hope” changed gears and was sadly somber. Both characters are disappointed, broken people, unrequited in what should have been their love. Hackman and Mason gave the piece a strong interpretation but the flawed complexities of character and subtle hesitations between what was and what could have been have escaped them thus far.
The set and lighting composition was a beauty to behold. Each of Tom Width’s scenes was framed from behind with a borderless boxed panorama of trees and sky. Through double scrims that acted like a bizarre perception filter, Joe Doran’s lighting scheme of stars, fixed and shooting, became eerily reminiscent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (without all the math). The haziness of the perception provided by the double scrims gave the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) a Twilight Zone feel of mystical reality, guiding the fates of the lovers onstage. Superior work.
Maura Lynch Cravey provided realistic, spot on Northern Wear. The hats! Love those timber-men hats with the big fur-lined ears. Enough flannel to convince you that you were sitting in an ice box. And the scene where Restivo turns the tomboy, they strip layer after layer of glorious garments off each other until they’re in their color coordinated long johns ready to strip those offstage. Very well done.
Jason “Blue Herbert” made it all work. I saw a preview and the show was technically and artistically ready. Julian Fleisher provided incidental music that sometimes overpowered the scene even when it was the appropriate choice. But only sometimes. Most of the time, it put you in just the right mood.
An almost perfect Almost, Maine. A really good production of a surprisingly well crafted script.
I haven’t been in High School for over 40 years. Who knew?
Almost, Main runs today through Oct. 22nd at Swift Mill Creek Mill Theatre – head to their website here.
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