Acclaimed playwright-actor returns home for a laudable cause

Posted March 11, 2011, at 5:33 p.m.

Not everyone has the good fortune to be able to say of someone, “I knew him when,” but those who do should be jumping for joy that one of your own is coming home simply because he wants to reconnect with a place he holds dear to his heart.

Stage, screen, television actor, playwright and Tony Award-nominated Broadway performer John Cariani has accepted the invitation of his former Presque Isle High School drama teacher, Barbara Frick Ladner, to present the northern Maine premier of his critically acclaimed play “Almost, Maine.”

That event is at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 18 and 19, at Wieden Auditorium on the University of Maine campus in Presque Isle.

John told me during a telephone interview this production will feature an all-Maine cast, himself included, for the first time ever.

John said he will fill “just a very small, tiny, little role,” but he is thrilled to have all Mainers in the production.

“I’m excited about it,” he said of working again with director Frick Ladner and set and stage designer Joe Zubrick of the UMPI theater department, with whom John worked in summer theater.

Presque Isle Community Players in the cast include Jeff Ashby, Tamia Glidden, Frank Grant, Debbie Lamont, Tamara Scott, Brian Sipe, Mel Smith, Rod Thompson and Ginny White.

John is coming home because he learned his beloved Wieden Auditorium, where he spent so many happy hours as a youngster, is in need of refurbishment, and he hopes to help draw attention to that fact.

He understands the facility has “fallen into a little bit of disrepair, and that’s a real shame,” he said.

“I saw tons of stuff there. Everything from African drumming to jazz and piano players. My parents took me to see everything there was. And they didn’t care if I fell asleep.”

It was Frick Ladner who suggested he return home for this purpose, he said.

“The neat thing to me is she thought using ‘Almost, Maine’ to help start a fundraising campaign to fix Wieden” would be a good idea.

“Almost, Maine,” his first play, debuted in 2004 at Portland Stage Company where attendance and box-office records made history, and The Wall Street Journal named it ”one of the best regional theater productions of the 2004-05 season,” according to an UMPI release.

The success of this Maine-born play, quite frankly, is amazing.

According to releases, “Almost, Maine,”  which features a series of vignettes set during a winter night in a remote community of that name, has been produced more than 600 times in the United States, including nearly 60 professional productions and internationally from South Korea to Australia.

Most impressive to me is that “Almost, Maine” was No. 1 on the list of 2010’s most-produced North American high school plays, according to an annual survey by “Dramatics Magazine,” replacing the previously No. 1 production, Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

A PIHS alum who graduated from Amherst College and moved to New York City in 1995 to pursue an acting career, John will be home for a week, teaching workshops at the middle and high schools, UMPI and Northern Maine Community College.

You can hear the smile in his voice when he looks back at his days growing up in The County, where “the seed was planted” for his career in theater.

“It means a lot to me,” he said of his relationship with the local theater community and the community at large which helped shape his future.

“The relationship between UMPI and the community is one and the same,” he said proudly.

“A lot of colleges are separate from towns but, growing up, I saw and participated in a lot of plays in UMPI in the summertime.”

“I just love where I grew up. I think it is a very unique, special place. There are not many parts of the country where the highway ends and there are still hundreds of miles of state ahead of you.”

John is thrilled his play has become so popular, in spite of initial New Yorker attitudes that it wouldn’t appeal to tourist audiences from middle America. That attitude, as far as he is concerned, is simply wrong.

“Well-adjusted, well-educated people” can and do live everywhere, he said, and Presque Isle is living proof of that.

Susan Grove-Markwood of UMPI’s community and media relations department told me while there is no official fundraising campaign under way to refurbish Wieden Auditorium, the hope is John’s return to his hometown with this production “will just get people back into the facility” and help folks realize the importance of maintaining this special venue in The Country.

The auditorium seats “close to 400” she said, and tickets are still available for each show at several locations in Presque Isle or by calling UMPI at 768-9452.

What a welcome home it would be for John, and a tribute to the community that inspired him, if the house were filled for each production.

Joni Averill, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402; javerill@bangordailynews.com; 990-8288.

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