Almost, Maine by John Cariani. Directed by Eric Peterson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
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"Iím having a nice time with you."
Sometimes itís like visiting an old friend; sometimes an old lover with whom things ended on a sour note; sometimes its just a momentary lull in a relationship. Thatís what itís like seeing a play that has become a staple in a short time, a play that never has a bad production, a play like "Almost, Maine." This play is about all of the above. Watching it is almost like being there, almost like being a part of it.
The current production by the Oldcastle Theatre company in Bennington, Vermont is the third one Iíve seen in two and a half years; the first at the Theatre Barn in New Lebanon, New York and the last one at the Chester Theater in Chester, Massachusetts. The play, I have to say, is always the same. No production has been able to alter the sweetness of the sensibilities here; no director has removed the sting of love-lost, nor the thrill of first discovery.
There are, as there always have been, nine stories of lovers meeting, parting, reuniting, discovering one another. For each new audience, wherever this show plays, there is the same adventure, the same road to revelations. Set on a single winter night in the northern district of the state of Maine, a town that hasnít incorporated yet (mostly because theyíre just too busy doing next to nothing) undergoes a transformation of love. Pete and Ginette discover that the world can bring them closer by separating them for a time. East and Sandrine find the northern lights liberating, freeing them from past mistakes in love. Randy and Phil make a marvelous declaration that literally and figuratively leaves them weak in the knees. Hope and Dan learn what reality does to true love when fear of commitment rears its ugly head and Phil and Rhonda uncover lost loveís reminiscent bitterness. All in one night, and thatís just the surface - there are more stories to be heard.
Eric Peterson, with the aid of production designer Kenneth Mooney, has provided a bare-bones production that allows four actors, taking on all the roles - nineteen in all - to tell the stories in the best way possible. They show us everything necessary to make us understand their particular situations. Under Petersonís watchful direction we experience more kissing than there is in a holocaust musical, more embraces than youíll find in a Disney show. The romances are finely tuned under this directorís concept and the bittersweet endings are always delivered with taste and humor. Peterson has found the formula for his actors to use to make points and never over-sentimentalize a situation.
The cast of four consists of Natalie Wilder, Richard Howe, Shawn J. Davis, and Marianna Bassham. They sometimes switch costumes and roles in the wink of an eye and come out on stage ready to be whoever they need to be. When your set change consists of setting a chair and removing a beer can, there isnít much time to spend getting into anything - coat, dress, mood. This quartet handle such short interludes brilliantly.
The playwright has settled on a framework tale, Pete and Ginette whose love is so great they almost never need to speak or touch set the mood and create the final tableau and around their attachment to the star-filled night dominated by the planet Saturn the others stories are strewn.
Wilder is especially touching in the story about a woman who has rushed back to this town to give an answer to a question asked of her years before. She hasnít changed much, but the man has grown into someone she no longer knows. I have seen a better performance of this story, but never a performance where the womanís acceptance of the reality of her sad situation is held tight and only touches her, not the audience. The shock of such a close to the bone handling of the emotional impact here is easily mitigated by the body posture, the walk and the inclined head moving into a self-sufficient place of pride that is obviously false. Wilderís take on this ending is remarkable and beautiful in a way I would never have anticipated.
Davis is a joy as Phil, a man whose own greatest joy is in the awful dates he has with women. His best friend bests him, but he isnít fazed by that, as long as he and his friend can remain as they are. When things change between them, Davisí playing out of the altered relationship is funny, funny, fraught. He plays this wonderfully and is helped enormously in the mirrored actions of Richard Howe.
Howe takes on Pete like no one else has so far in my triple experience of the play. His unique, sad-sack face lends itself perfectly to this non-verbal lover. While he is equally fine in his other roles it is Pete that will remain in memory, I think. This tale is split into three sections and by the third one he is breaking our hearts. When he moves to follow the lost Ginette but hesitates to do so he makes us want to throw something at him just to motivate him from outside as he clearly can only be scolded from the inside. The resultant happiness generated by his hesitation seemed to be just exactly right.
Bassham has no best role. Each one is unique but it may be the enthusiasm for finding out what lies beneath in her Rhonda that makes the best single take of the evening. As one animal instinct replaces another one Bassham roars with confidence and a new-found freedom. It was just lovely to watch.
Almost, Maine may be the easiest play ever written when it comes to just sitting back, taking it in, and enjoying it. Peterson has done well to bring Maine down to Vermont (or back up from New York and Massachusetts). You would do well to just go sit down and watch it.
Almost, Maine plays at the Bennington Center for the Arts through August 9. The theater is located on Vermont Route 9 at Gypsy Lane in Bennington. For schedules and tickets call 802-447-0564.