Almost, Maine, is a tiny rural town in the northern part of the state, about 150 miles from the coast. But do not look for it on a map, for it exists only in the imagination of playwright John Cariani and, for the next two-and-a-half weeks, onstage at Palm Beach Dramaworks. (Because of production complications from COVID-19, the first show has been moved back three days, to Saturday. The show runs through Jan. 30.)
Almost, Maine is an evening of nine whimsical vignettes about the mysteries of love and the magic of the aurora borealis. While there is drama in it, Almost, Maine is chiefly a comedy, which is an uncharacteristic production choice for Dramaworks.
“There’s an absurd nature to some of the pieces, which is great fun,” says director J. Barry Lewis. “And others are highly dramatic. It’s hard not to get ahead of the story sometimes, but if you trust the process and the vision and give over to it, I think you’ll appreciate the choice of this play. We have been through so much in the past two years, this is an opportunity to be together collectively as an audience and appreciate the love that theater is all about.”
“All of the characters and stories are separate, but the interesting thing about the show is that they’re supposed to be taking place at the same time,” around 9 o’clock at night, explains Niki Fridh, one of the four cast members who play a total of 19 different parts. “Magical things are happening in each one of them, things that are surprising to the characters. And the things that are happening, the love connection or the love lost, are all supposed to be sparked by this natural occurrence of the Northern Lights.”
In addition to quickly making each character distinct from the others in a scene’s 10-12 minute running time, a key challenge for the cast is striking the right tone of whimsy without drifting into cute.
“That’s absolutely a concern,” says actor Brandon Morris, who returns to South Florida after more than a decade in New York. “We all discussed that on Day One, that cute will kill this play. The challenge is finding the realism in all aspect of things. It may be absurd, a bit out of the everyday norm, but still making it real and believable.”
“It’s based in reality, but there’s magical realism happening,” adds Lewis. “There’s something at play here that is unique and unexplainable.”
When the play premiered off-Broadway in 2006, it received only mixed reviews, but Almost, Maine has since become one of the most produced plays in the country, particularly in high schools and community theaters.
“It may not be the kind of play that New York critics respond to, but audiences do,” says Lewis. They identify with the possibility of love. It’s sometimes just beyond the reach but it’s also exciting and scary and wonderful, all at once. And there’s nothing better to see in the theater than that possibility.”
Fridh concedes that she was initially wary of the play. “I knew that it was really popular in high schools and I was pretty trepidatious about that. I was surprised that Dramaworks was doing it,” she says. “But working on it with J. Barry, we’re finding a lot more in the script than I was expecting.”
Morris agrees that Almost, Maine does not seen to be typical Dramaworks fare. “When you compare it to ‘Streetcar’ and ‘Macbeth’ — the really big plays — it may not measure up, but it’s very entertaining, I think. I’m not saying that this doesn’t have its place, it absolutely does.”
And yes, in its way, the play is “theater to think about,” PBD’s mission motto. “It’s a lot of relationship stuff that makes you think about love and small towns and maybe the love that got away. Or the absurdity of some of these things actually happening in real life.”
“There’s a lot of magic and spontaneous things that happen in this play that are surprising,” notes Fridh. “So I think it goes back to magical realism, which is definitely something to think about. One of the reasons people will like going to this play is because it’s lighter and it’s loving and it’s beautiful and sweet and funny, which are all qualities that I think we’re all looking for right now. I think we all need to get out of the house and this is a really beautiful, fun light piece that has heart to it.
“You’ll laugh and maybe you’ll cry. And you’ll find yourself in these people and their situations.”
ALMOST, MAINE. Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Jan. 15–30. $79. 561-514-4042. or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.