Mainers are a proud lot. Proud, but sometimes insecure. We know we live in a place that is undeniably beautiful and possessing of a certain sense of wildness, with a people that are resourceful and generous. We’ll defend its many merits fiercely. But we sometimes feel like the rest of the country sees us as their adorable little cousin with the funny accent and the never-ending supply of moose and seafood. Which makes us neurotic, even if we don’t like to show it.
If you’re born a Mainer, you’re a Mainer for life — for better or for worse. Even if you move away to New York City. That is, unless you move away to New York City and get too big for your britches and forget your roots. That idea of identity — as a Mainer, and as a human being — is the central conceit of John Cariani’s new play, “Last Gas,” set to have its central Maine premiere this week at Penobscot Theatre Company.
It’s an engaging, funny and often sad account of one Nat Paradis, a resident of Township 15 Range 8 in Aroostook County who struggles with who he is, what he has and hasn’t done with his life, and what the future might hold as he sells pizza and beer to the denizens of his corner of The County. While it’s charming and humorous, “Last Gas” is also unflinching in examining the lives people lead in Maine’s far-flung rural communities.
“I got so used to being made fun of, in a way, as a Mainer. I think the portrayal of Mainers in Hollywood is almost always totally inaccurate,” said Cariani, a native of Presque Isle. “I think the folks from The County who saw it were thinking it was going to be one of those things. But it’s not. It’s what I know. It’s where I come from.”
Cariani is best known as the writer of “Almost, Maine,” his heartwarming play based on stories of a fictional town in Aroostook County. It was a moderate off-Broadway success and has found new life in regional theaters across the country. It has been staged by nearly every community theater company in Maine, as well as at the Penobscot Theatre Company and Portland Stage. “Last Gas” is his hotly anticipated follow-up, which was already staged at Portland Stage last fall.
Cariani is a Tony-nominated actor for his role in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” and a former cast member of NBC’s “Law and Order.” He left Maine to further his career, but he returns home with his writing. He knows the world that Nat Paradis lives in intimately.
“I feel like I’ve been trying to teach the rest of the world that it isn’t all lobster. People from New Mexico deal with the same everyday issues that Mainers do,” said Cariani. “We just deal with them a little differently.”
Marcie Bramucci, who directed “Last Gas” at Penobscot Theatre Company, knows that by Mainer standards, she’s not a Mainer — she grew up outside of Philadelphia — though she has made Bangor her home since 2009. Regardless, the major themes of the play are universal.
“I think what comes across very clearly is that these are people that lead seemingly simple lives, and yet their interior lives are very complex and layered and complicated,” said Bramucci, the theater company’s managing director. “They are not at all simple people.”
On the surface, Paradis, played by New Yorker Dave Droxler, is a regular dude in a small town. He runs a gas station in the middle of nowhere — and the set, a two-level design by Erik Diaz with the store on the bottom and Nat’s apartment on top, beautifully reflects the bare-bones, no-frills life Paradis leads.
Cariani knows people exactly like that.
“It’s based on a corner store near where I grew up in Presque Isle. One of those stores that are in residential areas, that are now getting moved because of zoning,” said Cariani. “It was a place where people would meet and talk and grab some milk. You could leave the car running outside. That’s Nat’s life.”
Nat’s interactions with his teenage son, Troy (20-year-old Ellsworth actor Cameron Wright), his father, Dwight (Arthur Morison), and his best friend, Guy (Ben Laymen), as well as with the mother of his son, Cherry Tracy (Jasmine Ireland), prove that he is a much more complicated character. And when his high school flame Lurene (played by Meghan Malloy of Philadelphia) comes back into town from her New York City home, his world is turned upside down.
Bramucci sees Nat as someone who has made a lot of compromises in his life, partially out of fear.
“He was supposed to go to New York with Lurene, but he didn’t. The things that have happened in his life haven’t always been what he’s wanted,” she said. “I think there’s two things going on at any given time with these characters. There’s all this pride about being from Maine, but then there’s this tension about leaving, seeing the rest of the world, trying new things. The choices you make define who you are. There’s a lot of friction within all these people.”
To get her cast, made up of Mainers and non-Mainers alike, in the right frame of mind, Bramucci took them all camping outside of Presque Isle last month. Jasmine Ireland is a native of Presque Isle, so going up to The County was no big deal for her. She was going home.
“[The play] absolutely rings true. I know these people. I’m related to some of these people. And I was one of those people who went away and then came back,” said Ireland, who lived, studied and acted in New York for a number of years before returning to Maine. “Nothing is overt or stereotypical, either. It’s nuanced. Not just the language, but in the psychology. These are people that keep to themselves, and so their story doesn’t get told very often. It’s kind of refreshing.”
Cariani has a great deal of love, empathy and respect for the people of The County. It’s reflected in his writing, which is simultaneously honest and sweet — and leveled with a good amount of easygoing humor. But even as he knows that The County is a special place with its own unique joys and challenges, there’s a common humanity that connects everyone everywhere.
“I’m learning as I get older that, in the end, nobody is all that different, whether you live in the city or the country,” said Cariani. “I think we also forget to recognize intelligence and wisdom, and that it comes in all kinds of different packages. Just because someone isn’t a great speaker or writer doesn’t mean they don’t have some great, important thoughts. They just don’t get packaged the same. There’s a lot going on under the surface.”
Penobscot Theatre’s production of “Last Gas” will have two preview performances at 7 p.m. Sept. 7-8 and will open at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, at the Bangor Opera House. The show runs through Sunday, Sept. 25. Tickets start at $20. For information or tickets, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.