I liked the production of the play I saw in Manhattan seven years ago, but the one in Hartford is exceptional. Since then, Almost, Maine has been presented regionallyand by colleges, high schoolsand community groups. The TheaterWorks production is an exquisite blend of dialogue with performance.
Cariani speaks of a distant and perhaps mysterious geographic region where the temperatures are frigid yet the welcoming stars, on a certain Friday evening in January, illuminate. Michael Schweikardt's set (first a wooden bench and then more) is complemented by Mary Jo Dondlinger's precise lighting. Costumer Harry Nadal outfits the performers with suitably bulky winter garb. During the very first scene, Pete (Lucas Hall) sits on a bench and Ginette (Laura Esposito) edges toward him. A snowball becomes a metaphor for a traveler's journeyon the bench and elsewhere.
Next, Glory (Jess Watkins) arrives to see the Northern Lights. She is in the yard belonging to East (Eric Bryant). We will learn about Glory's heart and hear East declare that he (suddenly) loves her. Funny and sad, it might seem simplistic but not really.
Cariani has written many scenes: there is a return to the bench and Pete. The play is about love and longing; friendship and isolation; melancholic hope. With time and the virtues of the current production enhancing it, the script probes more deeply and with a growing and becoming strength.
At TheaterWorks, Almost, Maine feels the presence of both its director and playwrightas if they, too, are on stage with the actors. TheaterWorks blends grace with energy; lyricism with exuberance.
It is very much an actors' play and that comes as no surprise. Cariani, who was a member of the Apollo Company (two decades ago) at StageWest in Springfield, Massachusetts, is a sterling and versatile performer. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his role as Motel the tailor in a Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. He also had a recurring role on television's "Law and Order" and appeared on the silver screen in Kissing Jessica Stein. Originally from Maine, he knows that territory as well as the boards of live stage. All of this is on positive display.
Saltz's production is a fluent one, as she smoothly connects one situation to the next. Many scenes comprise Almost, Maine and they seemingly link together. This is not a sketch after sketch scenario. Rather, it is a well-designed theatrical fabric.
Thematically, the play, at its core, examines relationships and either possibilities or absence of love. Romance is out there but questions ask where and for whom and when.
Cariani has a feel for comedy, too, and timing between actors is key. Just after intermission, Chad (Bryant) and Randy (Hall) are out there front and center. Two guys from Maine talking: are these two destined to become partners?
The acting contingent is special: spirited and/or nuancedaccording to circumstance. Rob Ruggiero recently became Producing Artistic Director at TheaterWorks and the current production is a fitting and warm fit for this Off-Broadway type house. Whimsical at times and poignant at other moments, Almost, Maine is an almost play for it is complete with detail. Expressive throughout its two hour running time, the show continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through March 3rd. For ticket information, visit www.theaterworkshartford.org or call (860) 527-7838.
- Fred Sokol