"Almost, Maine" by John Cariani at Centerstage North, Feb. 15-23, 2019
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Title: Mainly, I Do Like Maine
"Almost, Maine" takes us to an unincorporated township in upstate Maine and lets us eavesdrop on the love lives of various pairs of residents on a clear, cold Friday night. At Centerstage North, the set (designed by Jeff Costello) shows us three general locations: a restaurant alcove stage left, an outdoor park bench up center, and a house front stage right. Cotton batting around the outdoor locations suggests snow; panels painted to suggest thick stands of birches partially fill in the gaps between the three locations. Benches are sometimes brought out and placed down center for various scenes.
Under house lights, the set isn’t particularly attractive. But when the show starts, the magical lighting design by Jonathan Liles (with assistance from Nina Gooch) turns the stage into a winter wonderland, with stars and shadows of trees and the shimmering effect of the Northern Lights. Together with the acoustic guitar music of John Mistretta that sets each scene in Brenda Orchard’s sound design, we’re instantly transported to the Maine countryside.
The show begins with a prologue featuring Pete (James Connor) and Ginette (Linda Place) that continues in an interlogue to start the second act and an epilogue that ends the show. It sets the warm yet wacky tone of the show, as two shy lovers part in an attempt to get closer to one another.
"Her Heart" has hiker Glory (Leigh-Ann Campbell) showing up uninvited at the homestead of East (Kirk Campbell) to view the Northern Lights. She has a back story that is both weird and touching, and this real-life married couple brings the story to vibrant life. It contributes to the strong start of the show.
"Sad and Glad" has Jimmy (Michael Rostek) encountering former flame Sandrine (Courtney Loner) at a restaurant. It becomes clear that the couple won’t be getting back together again, but there’s a waitress (Hayley Haas) and a misspelled tattoo that hint at a possibly happy future. This section keeps up the promise of the show.
In "This Hurts," there’s some all-too-real violence between innocent Steve (John Coombs) and already-spoken-for Marvalyn (Katie Wickline) as they meet in the laundry room of a boarding house. There’s quirky fun too, but the violence brings an unpleasant edge to this almost-romance.
The first act ends with "Getting It Back," as Gayle (Stephanie MacFarlane Dennard) shows up at the home of Lendall (Greg Fitzgerald) to demand the return of all the love she’s given him. And in the magical strangeness of this play, she hauls out bags and bags of the love he’s given her. The play ends on a strong, romantic note, but the initial histrionics of Ms. Dennard don’t quite hit home as much as they could.
After the interlogue, "They Fell" shows buddies Shelly (LeeAnna Lambert) and Deena (Amy Cain Lucas) commiserating about their bad luck with men as they sit and eat ice cream. This is perhaps the most charming of the scenes, acted beautifully by both women, with just enough slapstick to make the silly premise produce smiles.
"Where It Went" takes on a more sour note, as married couple Phil (Jerry Jobe) and Marci (Lisa Clark) bicker after ice skating while they search for her missing shoe. The marriage seems to be in trouble, and we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is more of a skit than a play, nicely acted, but relying on a physical gag for its payoff.
"Story of Hope" brings Hope (Amy Tallmadge) to the house owned by Danny (Kevin Kreissl). She left town years before, without answering a marriage proposal, and has come back to give her answer to him, assuming that he still lives in the same house. This is a bittersweet story, since he never will hear her answer.
The last playlet before the epilogue is "Seeing the Thing," in which Dave (Toby Smallwood) gives long-time snowmobiling friend Rhonda (Nylsa Smallwood) a painting he’s done. It’s a gesture of love, but it takes Rhonda forever to see it as such. The terrific chemistry between these real-life spouses brings satisfaction as "Almost, Maine" moves back into optimistic territory.
Director Julie Taliaferro wisely chose married couples to play many of the couples in the show, and this casting choice pays off nicely in the romantic connections we see. Blocking makes good use of the wide playing space, and tableaux at the ends of scenes work with dimming lights to give a cohesive feeling of completion to each little story. I’d be happy to see anything featuring the splendid acting of Ms. Campbell, Ms. Lucas, Ms. Clark, Mr. Connor, and the Smallwoods, but the whole ensemble contribute mightily to the success of this production. Props and costumes are very good too. Ms. Taliaferro has put together a winning production of one of community theatre’s favorite plays.