Almost, Maine by John Cariani. Directed by Chuck Hudson.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Manon Halliburton and Jim Beaudin
Tracy Liz Miller and Paden Fallis
"If youíre lost on a mountain in Maine..."
In the winter, at 9:00 in the evening, as the northern lights make their magical appearance, couples discover, or rediscover, the magical powers of love. It can excite, or it can illuminate, or it can bifurcate or eliminate possibilities for the occupants of an area on the Maine map too small to be an actual town or village or hamlet. Well, perhaps not too small, but too uninterested in making the effort.
A woman camps on the lawn of the townís repairman without permission; she has come to see the lights and to pay homage to the departing soul of the husband she believes she has killed. A man who has mistakenly tattooed his arm with a misspelled declaration of his own villainy finds an unexpected miracle in the back room of a small bar. A couple who have grown apart over the years ask for a miracle, and lo, the other show drops and everything is different. These are three of the nine stories that make up this mockumentary play which is adorning the stage of the Chester Theatre Company at the moment.
The most touching piece is a framework tale, divided in three parts but still the shortest of these short stories, all of which are taking place simultaneously. A man, Pete, and a woman, Ginette, sitting on two benches to watch the lights, declare their love for each other, and that declaration tears them asunder as Pete explains his theory of the world and its effect on closeness. As his tale moves her away from him, he declares that she is getting closer to him. Then, when all seems lost, she returns transformed by his tale. It is touching, sweet and absurd. It is also beautifully played by two of the four actors in this show, a foursome who perform twenty unique roles.
Pete and Ginette are played by Jim Beaudin and Manon Halliburton. He is a round-faced imp with a shocking smile and a tendency to slight gestures. His movements are emphatic, the way a dancerís movements can be when they complete a combination. He finishes what he starts before moving on to the next moment. She is a more fluid creature, constantly altering the shape of her body in relation to his. They play together well. And not just in this story. At a later moment in the show she becomes the object of his unanticipated desire as she, with an angularity in her performance, becomes the stuff that dreams are made of.
The second couple of players, Paden Fallis and Tracy Liz Miller, are quite different. Both tall and slender, they complement one another in any scene they have together, although not all of their loves scenes are shared. for this script and its director easily integrate this foursome for different stories. He has an angular face which is very expressive with a voice and hands to match that angularity. Holding a bottle of beer, or a woman, his hands seem to be the focus of things. Watching a stranger on his lawn, his face is all that matters. Discussing the newest discovery of a lifetime of searching for affection, his voice carries all the meaning in the world as his body becomes a literal dishrag of solidity.
Miller is another story entirely. Her carriage is stiff and upright and her face carries a chill in it that, when it melts, parodies love. Her unusually cynical outlook on love works brilliantly with this physical bearing and then, when we think we know the actress, she alters herself and struggles through the only heartbreaker in the collection of short stories that is this play. As a woman returning to a lost love she never quite rejected, she struggles with all of her possessions, with all she has left and never truly recognizes the man she realizes she worships. Of all the tales in this tiny eveningís entertainment, this is the saddest of them all. And even the visual joke that makes it work cannot touch the depth of emotional control Miller exercises in its performance.
The open, barren plain that is this corner of the most extreme state in the union is portrayed nicely by a door, some snow and a table, a bench, a skydrop filled with orange stars. Craig Milne has made this all work nicely. Heather Crocker Aulenback has costumed her cast appropriately for each of their characters and Lara Dubin has helped them illuminate their stories with lighting designed for each space. Tom Shread makes the scene transitions work with appropriate music.
Chuck Hudson, directing all of this, has created both comic and touching moments for his cast to work through as they develop each small mystery. Chad and Randyís woeful emergence as a couple, already considered a couple by some of the others who cite them as a pair even though these two donít know it about themselves, is typical of Hudsonís work in this play. Here two individuals reveal the worst of their relationships with others in a playful, physical way and slowly come to realize that they are each otherís dream of companionship. When that form of friendship suddenly blossoms into something more, each of them find they cannot control their combination of lust and disgust and their bodies literally dissolve on the stage before us. Hudson guides his players through this scene, and so much more, with a delicacy and a wonderful craftiness that allows this duet to become a concerto. Itís a brilliant job of taking characters to new places.
He has managed this sort of thing, so differently in each case, with all of the pairings in the play and the show has a new strength because of it.
In the difficult, short runs that Chester provides, it is essential that you book tickets early, so get to it. A winter night in northern Maine with a group of people discovering what love is all about is just the right thing for a hot summer evening in the Berkshires. Youíll leave the non-town of Almost, Maine refreshed.
Seen one performance prior to opening.
Almost, Maine plays at the Chester Theater through July 27. Tickets are $24.50 - $29.50. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 413-354-7771 or find them online at www.chestertheatre.org.
This theater has a new policy: Buy a ticket and if you want to see the show again, you can have another ticket free. The idea behind this is that actors change and grow and an audience might want to see how the characters develop over the course of a run. Of course, you can also convince another friend to join you and buy a ticket. And why not!