With its intimate discussions of love, John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine” promises to be personal in nature for any audience member. Nevertheless, for me, the play strikes a chord particularly close to home. Cariani’s work is based on his and my hometown of Presque Isle, Maine. You might say I’m from Almost.
Described simply, Cariani’s piece is the tale of a single winter night in a small town in Maine’s sparsely populated northern region. The play’s nine approximately 10-minute vignettes each involve two or three characters, following the residents of Almost in scenes relating to an overarching theme of love, both newfound and lost, strengthening and decaying. As shooting stars grace the night sky, a certain mysticism comes to inhabit the script — love becomes tangible, capable of being confined in cloth bags, human hearts shatter after turning to slate, and falling in love entails an actual loss of footing in what the Dallas Observer aptly termed a “midwinter night’s dream.”
In Yale’s production of Cariani’s work, director Molly Houlahan ’14 has assembled a strong, well-rounded cast to bring the spirit of northern Maine to the Calhoun Cabaret. But the script is not without challenges. The play struggles with what can become an almost painful lightheartedness. One of the most telling lines is spoken by Villian (Stephanie Brandon ’13) in the third vignette, “Sad and Glad.” Taken aback by Jimmy’s (Jacob Backer ’14) good-natured romantic advances, she describes him as “adorable.” Practically all of the play’s characters are well-meaning, kindhearted townspeople, and the first act’s five scenes are almost uniformly optimistic, culminating in conclusions whose reception could depend on the audience’s perception of the word “cute.”
Nonetheless, the cast of “Almost, Maine” adeptly avoids prolonging moments of hopeless romanticism. Across the board, the actors and actresses successfully convey the sincerity and good humor of the residents of Almost, conjuring up a warmth fitting for the holiday season as they confront varied romantic, often comically strange, situations. For example, in “Her Heart,” East (Jordan Ascher ’14) falls in love with Glory (Eden Ohayon ’14) after discovering her, a complete stranger, camping in his yard to see the northern lights. The second act delivers greater tension with more emotionally charged scenes, like the bitter exchange between Phil (Ascher) and Marcy (Christine Shaw ’14) in “Where It Went.” But despite the darker tone introduced in the second act, a positive sentiment ultimately prevails at the play’s conclusion.
Certain other aspects of the show are especially unique. With 19 characters and a 10-person cast, almost all cast members play multiple roles, some in consecutive scenes. Stage manager Ethan Karetsky’s ’14 simple, charming set — a single picnic table against a backdrop of stars and offstage holiday lighting — also serves well in underscoring Almost’s isolation and removal from reality.
Yale’s rendition of “Almost, Maine” is the second I’ve seen of the play. In 2009, I attended a performance at a coastal Maine theater. Leaving that production, I remember feeling a certain disappointment — I didn’t recognize my own hometown. In one sense I envied the people of Almost, whose sincerity seemed free of Presque Isle’s underlying frustrations with isolation and insularity. But even more so, I felt the play perpetuated inaccurate stereotypes of a backwards backwoods alcove — the play’s characters have the potential to come across as simple-minded, even naïve. Suspicions arose, notions that the myth was more important than the eponymous place, that Almost, Maine could be Almost, Ontario or Almost, Minn. or anywhere isolated and cold.
And in some respects, my experience this second time was similar. While there were glimmers of Presque Isle in the Snowmobile Club, the French-Canadian last names, and Hedgehog Mountain, Almost’s surrealism eludes any sense of my being a true resident. But this time around, I left the play with a much warmer feeling. Perhaps because I wasn’t expecting to recognize Presque Isle, or maybe since I’ve been away from home for an extended period of time, it seemed less important that Almost be exactly like Presque Isle. When I stopped looking for myself in Almost, the feeling, the sense of community and isolation, of warmth in bitter cold, made Almost feel like home.