Staging three fully-produced plays in three weeks in the same space is an impressive undertaking, especially if the plays are done well. Last week, Theatre in the Park of Raleigh, NC began its presentation of a trio of contemporary plays: Sam Shepard’s True West, which ran Sept. 8-11; John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, which will run through Sept. 18th; and Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies, which will run Sept. 22-25. (Click here to read my review of last week’s presentation of True West.)
Stop #2 of this three-play tour of the United States kicked off Thursday night with Almost, Maine, by American playwright and Tony®-nominated actor John Cariani, whose 2012 play Love/Sick will run at N.C. State University Theatre on Sept. 22-29. (Keep an eye out for my review of that eagerly anticipated production.) Cariani is currently starring Nigel Bottom in the Broadway musical hit Something Rotten!
Almost, Maine premiered at the Portland Stage Company in Maine in 2004. Then it had a four-week Off-Broadway run in early 2006, which garnered mostly positive reviews. It is now one of the most-frequently-produced plays in the United States, with over 2,500 theater companies having produced it.
In 2014, this play surpassed A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the most frequently produced play in North American high schools. It has been translated into nearly 20 languages.
The reason this piece is performed so frequently is likely because it requires a very minimal set and a minimum of four actors. It could also be very useful for scene studies. The problem with this play itself is that the vignettes are predictable, clichéd, and redundant.
Cariani seems to have an issue with women in this play. They are typically confused, fragile, manipulable, and apologetic. One character fights off the advances of a man for several minutes before he finally coerces her into kissing him back. The lesson: if you just give in, everything will work out just fine.
The play is highly problematic in this way, and its metaphors are heavy-handed. A lot has changed in our views on gender and sexuality in the last 12 years; and Almost, Maine feels sorely dated. Future productions may benefit in some role-reversal casting, if the author and Dramatists Play Service, Inc. will allow it.
The 2014 Off-Broadway revival was named one of the best 10 plays of the year by The Advocate. This is probably because queer characters in theater are few and far between, so a stretch had to made to include a play with two male friends who fall in love with each other — a scene that takes up about 10 minutes of the play.
These men are far from being a couple. In fact, playwright John Cariani seems to go out of his way to make this a chaste, brotherly love. There is no intimacy here, but rather an extended joke about a dude falling in love with another dude (how ridiculous!).
In the fall of 2014, Maiden High School in Maiden, NC, made international headlines when it cancelled its production of Almost, Maine, after Principal Rob Bliss reportedly met with local church groups, who complained that the play contained “sexually explicit overtones and multiple sexual innuendos that do not align with our mission.” This is, of course, veiled language meaning that the play has queers in it, so it’s going to rile up the elders.
Author John Cariani responded in an interview with Playbill, asserting that the “[Maiden High School administration] is allowing a dangerous cycle of fear and self-hatred among LGBTQ youth to continue, and, consequently, they are tacitly promoting homophobia…. [S]chool officials are pleasing parents and pillars of the community rather [than] serving the students.”
The drama community, both inside and outside Maiden High School, as well as the United Arts Council of Catawba County, banded together to raise over $6,500 on Kickstarter to produce the play at an off-campus venue in Hickory, NC.
Although I think that Almost, Maine is a terrible play, it has received a terrific production at Theatre in the Park, thanks to director Carnessa Ottelin, assisted by Enloe High School teacher Phoebe Dillard. They have set a pace that allows dramatic moments to breathe and comedic moments to flash. The scenes are tight, with very limited pauses or needless hesitations from the actors.
The blocking is simple and effective, without drawing attention to the director. Rather, the actors are given space to create characters and play moments.
This quartet of capable actors tackle 21 different characters in the span of two hours. Byron Jennings II, though not assigned roles nearly as engaging as the other three actors, delivers what is, perhaps, the show’s most honest, grounded performances. He often plays the Straight Man in his scenes, and manages to tell complex stories even when not speaking. He is an actor that truly knows how to listen to his scene partners.
Lorelei Mellon steals the show with her impeccable comedic timing, ingenious and unique line delivery, lively facial expressions, and fully developed characters. She is a skilled actor of the highest caliber, and it is always a pleasure to watch her practice her craft.
Page Purgar also delivers characters that are clearly defined. Purgar is especially attentive to characters’ bodies and how movement and gesture indicates personality and emotion. It is a joy to watch her embody such a wide variety of women in a single production
Likewise, Brian Yandle weaves a tapestry of comedy and drama, with a blurry line between the two. His comedic characters demand our emotional attention, and his more dramatic moments still bear a lightness. His different characters are, perhaps, the production’s most distinct and finely crafted.
It was noticeable, but not distracting, that Ottelin opted not to go for Maine accents. Accents, unless done impeccably well, are often distracting, and can truly destroy a show. However, when blue-collar characters begin using Southern accents, this becomes a momentary production of Almost, Alabama.
Thomas Mauney’s lighting design is mostly effective, although actors are sometimes left wandering into dark patches on the periphery of the playing space. His use of color in a scene about the Northern Lights, however, was a highlight of the show’s technical design. The addition of a reversible porch/interior home set, cleverly attached at a pivot point, would have been more effective if used solely as the porch and all interior scenes played elsewhere.
Using the interior set as an exterior later in the play was confusing. The scene-changes were a bit too lengthy, but were supported by original musical compositions. The deck crew seemed confused at times about which set pieces and dressing needed to be moved and to where, with some fumbling about in the dark.
Elaine Brown’s costume designs certainly remind us that we’re in Maine. The actors must have been quite miserable, given some of the layering needed to achieve effective quick changes. However, ample differentiation was observable, helping to separate characters in the audience’s eye.
D. Anthony Pender’s fight choreography, involving an ironing board, elicited painful groans and big laughs from the audience. That is a combination that you dream of in a show with physical comedy.
If you’re looking for a fairly light evening of romantic comedy, this is a show that is worth seeing. The laughs come not from the playwright, though, but rather the fine work of an accomplished cast and a director who is a master of pacing and staging.
The play is in PG-13 territory for some emotionally intense material and sexual innuendo. Those below high school age aren’t likely to find the content relatable.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 16th Raleigh, NC Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/09/almost-maine-at-theatre-in-the-park-offers-wry-humor-comedy-pathos-drama-and-love/.
Theatre in the Park presents ALMOST, MAINE at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16 and 17 and 3 p.m. Sept. 18 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or http://www.etix.com/ticket/v/2482/ira-david-wood-iii-pullen-park-theatre-theatre-in-the-park.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
Almost, Maine (2004 Portland Stage Company and 2006 Off-Broadway romantic comedy): http://www.almostmaine.com/ (official website), http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=3759 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/4193 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Almost,_Maine (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.milwaukeerep.com/education/documents/almostmaine_000.pdf (Milwaukee Repertory Theater).
John Cariani (playwright): http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=117724 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/28307 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm137121/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cariani (Wikipedia).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.