A short visit to the tiny unincorporated and fictional village of Almost, Maine can be sweet, funny and frequently touching, as evidenced in Hartford TheaterWorks’ production of the John Cariani play that carries the name of the town.
Under the direction of Amy Saltz, the two act work, which runs through March 3, is an amiable evening composed of nine short vignettes that focus on the whimsical and quixotic nature of love and romance in this distinctly individual and, you could perhaps say, quirky little community in northernmost Aroostook County. Although the play is definitely a comedy, Saltz and her cast strive to present the characters as realistically and respectfully as possible, so that the audience can feel their longing, sadness, frustration, confusion and surprise.
“Almost, Maine,” is also the type of place where the unusual and unexpected can occur, perhaps aided by the excited electrons of the Northern Lights, which are blazing across the cold, star-filled night on which the play occurs. People fall in love by literally falling down; a broken heart is carried around in a brown paper bag, a shoe falls unexpectedly from the sky, and the love you give to someone can be returned in giant plastic bags.
Fortunately, Cariani’s writing generally avoids being too cutesy, instead remaining more wistful than “twee,” although his characters and plot would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson film. The TheatreWorks production carefully maintains this balance for the most part, allowing the characters to be endearing rather sweetly tiresome.
The cast of four are required to personify four or five different characters each, and although all four are a pleasure to watch, their variations can sometimes be more subtle than dramatically distinct. The short and tiny Laura Esposito is especially good at capturing the sad and forlorn nature of two of her characters, the devoted Ginette who will literally go that extra mile (and more!) for the man she loves and the tragic Hope who far too late acknowledges a dream that has always been in the back of her mind. She’s also quite fun as the angry, overeager Gayle, whose willingness to jump to conclusions initially blinds her to the compatibility of her boyfriend.
Jess Watkins is particularly funny as two very emotionally-tight women, the first who wields an ironing board as a lethal weapon and the second as a defensive fighter who never lets romance get past her front door. She’s also fine as a trespassing hiker, a waitress with an unusual name and a frustrated wife trying to recapture a romantic moment from her past.
Tall, thin Lucas Hall is expert at creating a number of taciturn characters, including a boyfriend fearful of getting too close, a rejected suitor reunited with an old flame, a dependent brother who can feel no pain, and a man confronted with an unexpected late night visitor. He’s also enjoyable as a beer-drinking buddy reluctantly forced to face a friend’s sudden confession.
The compact Eric Bryant is memorable as unwilling host determined to capture his guest’s heart, a patient boyfriend long used to enduring one of his girlfriend’s tirades, a good ol’ boy blurting out his feelings, a husband forced to face the reality of his long-dissipated marriage, and especially as a zealous suitor determined to break through the barriers erected by a fearful girlfriend.
The star-filled yet stark background of Michael Schweikardt’s set captures the cold and desolation of “the middle of nowhere,” aided by Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting which can pinpoint lone figures amidst the trees or develop a sense of refuge in warm interiors. A few props and pieces of furniture are used to distinguish the various locations, carried on and off the stage by a stage crew who almost become characters themselves, wrapped snugly in the coats, hoods, scarves and boots that serve as the standard uniform in deep woods Maine.
Harry Nadal must have cleared local thrift shops and department stores of a great deal of their cold weather supply to outfit the cast not only with a wide selection of outerwear, but with leggings, long underwear, plaid shirts, and sweaters, along with an assortment of protective hats, caps and ear muffs. One particularly buoyant sequence involves a couple trying to strip down despite layers and layers of winter garb.
Lighting designer Dondlinger also provides a few brief glimpses of the elusive Aurora Borealis, which Cariani hints may be responsible for some of the more magic moments of this gentle, satisfying evening.