There’s a pretty even split between genuinely funny and genuinely sad moments in John Cariani’s new play, “Last Gas,” which premiered Friday at Penobscot Theatre. His blend of earthy humor and pathos was the hallmark of his first play, “Almost, Maine,” and it returns in “Last Gas,” the story of lovelorn Nat Paradis, whiling away the years in his lonely “convenient” store in Township 2 Range 8, somewhere in Aroostook County. Nat’s world is overturned when his high school flame Lurene comes back into town after 16 years away — along with the worlds of all those close to him.
Cariani is a master of naturalistic banter, using the rhythms of everyday speech to propel his stories of The County. His characters never feel phony, and his respect and love of all the people in both his plays shines through, as their individual personalities develop over the course of the show. Mainers are lucky to have a writer as honest and clear-eyed as Cariani putting their lives on the stage.
Nat is the center of the story. His deeply repressed desires and laundry list of bad decisions finally catch up with him one night, and he’s forced to make the choice he has been avoiding ever since Lurene left for New York City and he didn’t follow her. Dave Droxler, a New York actor, imbues Nat with a restless anxiety, surrounding himself with a constant cloud of sadness and disappointment. And yet, even as you watch Nat screw up over and over again, he somehow remains lovable. Droxler excels at making Nat a real person, broken inside but still decent.
Nat’s father, Dwight, played by Arthur Morison, briskly dismisses Nat’s evident depression. As Morison plays him, Dwight’s a bit of a blowhard and a playboy, with old-fashioned morals but, in the end, a begrudging love for his son. Meghan Malloy is Lurene, who symbolizes everything Nat never had; namely, opportunities. Malloy gives her a tense, bubbly energy, as Lurene desperately tries to reconnect with the home she left 16 years ago.
Jasmine Ireland shines as Cherry Tracy, a forest ranger and the mother of Nat’s son, Troy. Ireland plays her as a fierce, fiery woman, who has had to work hard all her life to support and protect both her son and her former lover, as Troy (an athletic, charming Cameron Wright) grows up into a smart, capable young man and Nat sinks ever deeper into hopelessness.
And then there’s Guy, Nat’s best friend, played by Ben Laymen. As Guy, Laymen is sly and sarcastic, but cares very deeply about his friend. It’s clear from the beginning that their bond is the strongest one in the play, though fraught with a curious dynamic. And it’s here that “Last Gas” shows its weakness: the turn that Nat and Guy’s relationship takes is somewhat unexpected. The revelation at the end of the play is hinted at here and there in the first act, but as it stands, it feels somewhat out of left field. A few more hints early on in the action might make that revelation feel more natural.
There’s a good amount of fat that could be trimmed from the play as a whole. Long stretches of dialogue in the first act could be cut, and there are a few dead end character developments. As engaging as Cariani’s dialogue is, there’s a lot of it that doesn’t seem to do much of anything. Sometimes, that’s perfectly OK — but “Last Gas” runs well over two hours long, and a more streamlined version of the play would only underscore the important elements, without taking too long to get to the meat of the story.
That said, there’s no question that all six actors put in excellent, heartfelt performances. “Last Gas,” though slightly flawed, is an achingly real story, set in a world that Mainers know intimately — and anyone that’s ever been disappointed in life will recognize.