Wednesday, March 25, 2009

"Almost, Maine" showcases interesting people, both fictional and real, living in local, small-town communities

“Almost, Maine,” written by John Cariani, is an original play that takes the language of love literally in a mostly endearing and funny way. The Bucks County/Philadelphia community theatre group called The Playmasters performed this production from Feb. 20-March 8.

Directed by community theatre veteran Heather E. MacHenry and assistant director Julius Ferraro, “Almost, Maine” consists of eight scenes demonstrating the power of love in the relationships of odd, interesting, relatable and occasionally normal people. The comedic element of the play was set up immediately by the title, which defines the small town's non-existent status. Travelers who stumble upon the town trying to navigate their way by map lose their orientation because the town in fact is not quite chartered, and therefore it does not take up space on anyone's map or in anyone’s awareness.

A lot of the comedic, surprising element of the production came from the action onstage going undefined by the actors for awhile. The audience is left to try to rationalize these literal interpretations of love, while the actors continue to make it seem like it’s nothing out of the ordinary. In the way, every scene was hilarious.

The set was simple but effective. There were three walls spaced well away from each other to create the feeling of a room, with entrances for the actors on both sides. The back wall, facing the audience, was strewn with tiny Christmas lights that turned on when needed to convey the sense of a starry night. A park bench focused the action for seven of the scenes, with the one table and chair set for a bar scene.

The play is ushered in with a prologue and concluded with an epilogue featuring characters named Pete (Elliot Simmons) and Ginette (Eileen Simmons). This funny pair, who are married in real life, set the tone of the play well by their antics. In this small bit, we see the phrase “I’d walk around the world for you” taken literally.

The first scene depicts a girl named Glory (Illiana Hubbard) whose heart was broken by a man named Wes. She meets a repairman in Almost named East (Joe Szumila) who takes her heart — she was carrying it in a brown paper bag with her — and promises to mend it.

In the scene right before intermission, a woman named Gayle (Barbara Gibson) who was tired of waiting for her longtime partner (also played by Szumila) to propose decided she wanted all the love she’d ever given him back, so she brought his love back to his apartment in big black plastic bags.

Still, many poignant moments sneak into this witty, amusing play as well. The two scenes that moved me were titled “This Hurts” and “Story of Hope.” These scenes especially act as vehicles for the directors' vision of the play. As MacHenry said, "My artistic view of the show was hope. The way the script is written it’s very real; there’s definite heartbreak. But we all make choices. Sometimes our choices are limited by other peoples’ actions, but we all make choices. It’s a matter of how you make the choices and how resilient you are and hopeful."

This first scene illustrated the plight of a young man named Steve who can't feel anything. He didn’t have anyone to care for him except his brother; he was largely ostracized by society. His head is accidentally slammed into by an ironing board and at first he doesn’t feel it; but eventually he starts to fall for the woman carrying it, signified by his ability to feel pain when she mistakenly smacks the board into his head again.

Steve is played by Daniel DeRosier, a young actor in his mid-twenties. He does a good job conveying the sense of disorientation the character must feel in a world where so much is defined by pain or pleasure. The woman, named Marvalyn, is played by newcomer Hubbard. This was Hubbard’s first play, and her talent and enthusiasm for acting shone through her vibrant and intense performances.

The most flawless part of the play, “Story of Hope,” is one of the few scenes without a cute, happy-go-lucky ending. Michael Brazil, a great actor originally from California, plays a broken down man who literally lost Hope (also played by Gibson). He had proposed to her, but she ran away the morning she was supposed to give him an answer.

Brazil pulls the audience into the pain of the man through his physical characterization: his slow-moving mannerisms, worn-out appearance and feeble voice all symbolize the wretchedness of this poor man as he listens forlornly to the woman he loved and lost. She stumbles upon his doorstep looking for the man she once knew because she finally wanted to give him her answer. Explaining to her that after so many years of waiting, he eventually married someone else, he numbly retreats back into his house. At the end of this scene, the audience is left feeling bittersweet and strangely hopeful as Hope tells the empty air that her answer had always been yes.

Although "Almost, Maine" isn't a famous literary masterpiece, the play is meaningful for its message. Moreover, The PlayMasters' production offered an exhibition of local talent: all the actors and directors devoted a lot of time and effort, which paid off in this great performance. As MacHenry testified, "This production was really easy. It came together beautifully; everyone was totally committed to it."

1 comment:

  1. Did one of the directors write this play? I couldn't tell. I wonder if the idea of a place that doesn't appear on the map was inspired by the musical "Brigadoon," where a village emerges from the mist once a century. But the ideas of carrying a heart in a paper bag and returning love in a plastic garbage bag secures this play in a 21st C mentality. I wish I had seen it. Dr. Morse