BWW Review: Portland Stage's ALMOST, MAINE is Pure Perfection
Portland Stage's revival of John Cariani's ALMOST, MAINE, a play which premiered with the company in 2004, represents some of the very best work this theatre can produce. The exquisitely poetic series of vignettes about love and loss framed within the uniqueness of the Maine context, offers an evening of virtually pure perfection and unlimited delight.
Cariani's play is a perfect vehicle for this theatre in that it speaks in a voice that is so completely authentic that it draws the audience in and commands their empathy and identification. The playwright's world is peopled with real Mainers - not L.L. Bean stereotypes. These are simple, plain-spoken folk with quotidian lives that often hide their deeper emotional subtext. Cariani's great skill is probing the inner depths of his characters' hearts and allowing them to shine through each situation with a quiet intensity that is both profoundly moving and warmly funny. And he masterfully weaves together lives and separate vignettes to create a vivid tapestry of rural American life.
This revival is blessed by Sally Wood's direction. Her identification with the piece and its people is evident, and she skillfully, subtly, and fluidly paces the work. She is a master at creating physical comedy to mirror emotional experiences - witness the scene where Randy and Chad discover the true nature of their feelings for each other - just as she is adept at finding the visual metaphors for the text and eliciting from the cast finely etched performances of quiet truth.
The physical production has a minimalist beauty. Anita Stewart's set with its vast expanse of blue that evokes the great starry northern skies and the chill of winter is both sparse and dreamy. Tiny lights in the distance suggest remote houses, while patches of snow punctuate the loneliness of the landscape with their white purity. Bryon Winn's lighting captures the chill of this north country; Kathleen P. Brown's realistic attire in simple neutrals is completely accurate and she has moments when the costumes add to the comedy such as in the seduction scene where the would-be lovers have to strip so many layers of clothing that their romantic ardor dissipates. Chris Fitze provides the appealing sound design, and Stage Manager Shane Van Vliet expertly anchors the production.
The four-person cast meld themselves into a flawless ensemble. Led (at these early performances) by Cariani, himself, they find the humor and poignancy of their characters. Raymond McAnally, Kathy McCafferty, and Samantha Rosentrater, together with Cariani, form a quartet whose perfrct timing and very present performances make the evening meaningful.
New work has long been an important part of Portland Stage's mission. Though John Cariani's ALMOST, MAINE is now a beloved revival, it owes its very existence to this theatre. This production pays tribute to that history, but also to the enduring power of the playwright's characters and his and the creative team's special understanding of the people and places depicted in this work. ALMOST, MAINE is one of those plays that not only captures perfectly a specific context, but universalizes it memorably.
Photographs courtesy of Portland Stage, Mical Hutson, photographer