The first email from John Cariani was dated Jan. 2, 2014: “ALMOST, MAINE gets its first off-Broadway revival January 21-February 23.”
The second email came Feb. 7: “Critics love it — Extended to March 2.”
Wow. New York City likes Aroostook County, Maine.
Well, city audiences might not know that’s where they have landed when the scene unfolds before them at The Gym at Judson, just south of Washington Square Park.
The play’s program just says: “Everything takes place at nine o’clock on a cold, clear, moonless, slightly surreal Friday night in the middle of the deepest part of a northern Maine winter.”
But anyone from Aroostook County who might be in the audience would feel right at home in Almost, a town reminiscent of Presque Isle (French for “almost an island”). And even though you might have to be from northern Maine to catch references such as Ma Dudley’s or being “lost on a mountain in Maine,” “Almost, Maine” has a universal appeal because it is all about love.
Ten years after its 2004 premiere with the Portland Stage Company, the romantic comedy by Presque Isle High School alum John Cariani has been reimagined by Jack Cummings III, artistic director of Transport Group, a nonprofit, off-Broadway theater company committed to plays that seek to define what it means to be American.
After a week of preview performances in January, Cummings said, “People every night are falling in love with Maine.” And after two weeks, the run was extended amid great reviews.
“The show offers a sweetness and decency that’s become rare in the theater,” said the New York Post. “At this point, it’s a breath of fresh air.”
The New York Daily News critic wrote, “The script packs wit, earns its laughs and, like love, surprises you.”
And the New York Observer called the play “entirely charming thanks to an excellent cast, four actors playing 23 different roles, each one distinct and convincing, all lived-in, down-to-earth, real. … It’s quiet enough, subtle enough, funny enough — and so well-timed for this dark, snowy New York — that we believe.”
Cariani was in elementary school when his family moved to northern Maine from Bridgewater, Mass. He called Presque Isle home until he was 20 years old. Those formative years in Aroostook County kindled an affection and respect for the people, the place, the language and the natural setting that helped launch his career as a playwright.
“Almost, Maine” ran two months at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York City in 2006 and has since been produced by more than 2,000 theater companies in the United States and more than a dozen internationally. Maine performances in Portland and Bangor broke box office records, and, during the 2009-10 school year, the play unseated Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the play most produced in North American high schools.
Cariani said Cummings had his eye on the play for a while before he decided to re-introduce it to New York, suggesting maybe the city had missed something in 2006. Apparently, his instincts were good.
In addition to its popularity with audiences, the Lincoln Center Theatre on Film and Tape Archive has elected to record this revival for inclusion in its collection.
“This is a huge honor,” said Cariani. The archive preserves live theatrical productions considered to be of value to future generations, making them available to theater professionals, students and researchers.
Cummings sees the play tapping into “a quiet, complex, heartbreaking humanity” that everyone can appreciate, as it portrays various facets of love — unrequited, joyful, painful.
“People are finding an alchemy between what is funny and what is moving,” he said in a phone interview from New York, calling Cariani’s work “incredibly original.”
Cariani is pleased with Cummings’ rendition. “This production is a mature take on the play,” he said. “There’s a richness, a depth that I think is helping people view the play differently. It’s elegant, bleak, and hilarious … all at the same time.”
Cummings offered to stage the revival on the condition that Cariani agree to perform in it.
“I didn’t really want to be in it,” Cariani said in a recent phone conversation, admitting “it’s really fun.” He appears in the prologue, interlogue, epilogue and four of the eight scenes.
Reflecting on the play’s appeal for New York audiences, Cariani observed “an earnestness” in the characters not found in urban areas. “People come to big cities to make their fortunes, and when they have, they go back to places like northern Maine.”
Cummings called the play “a heartfelt portrait” of the place where Cariani grew up. “He lives in New York, but part of him will always be in Maine.”
A critic for New Jersey Newsroom echoed the thought: “Often humorous yet quietly heartfelt, it is a perfect show for Valentine’s Day.”
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.