When New York actors came to Caribou in 2006 to perform “Almost, Maine” by John Cariani, they asked members of the audience, in a discussion after the performance, why they erupted in laughter at numerous Aroostook County nuances written into the script.
From Ma Dudley’s restaurant to the rivalry between Arctic Cat and Polaris snowmobilers to the ranger from Ashland who could find you if you were “lost on a mountain in Maine,” Cariani’s portrayal of the place where he grew up drew laughter and applause no New Yorker could comprehend.
The Caribou audience educated the actors on the once-famous farmhouse restaurant in Castle Hill and on Donn Fendler’s book about his fateful hike on Mount Katahdin. One audience member even noticed that the play’s title alludes to Cariani’s home town, Presque Isle, French for “almost an island.”
Explanations won’t be necessary March 18 and 19 when local actors perform Cariani’s nine-episode tribute to northern Maine and its people at Wieden Auditorium at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. Tickets, which are $15 for adults and $10 for students, are still available for both performances and can be reserved by calling 768-9452.
“The actors are having so much fun,” said director Barbara Ladner, who worked with Cariani when he was a student actor at Presque Isle High School. And they are especially excited that Cariani will perform with them in a narrative role that ties the play together.
“I’m happy that ‘Almost, Maine’ is finally going to be performed by people who are actually from Almost, Maine,” Cariani said last week from New York City, where he now lives. “And I’m really excited to help kick off the fundraising effort to renovate Weiden Auditorium at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. I saw so many concerts and plays and speakers at Weiden growing up. Those experiences had a huge influence on me. In a lot of places, universities seem separate from their communities. Not the case at all with UMPI.”
“Almost, Maine” premiered in 2004 with a Portland Stage Company production that became the best-selling show in the company’s history. It was named one of the best regional theater productions of 2004-2005 by the Wall Street Journal, ran two months off Broadway at the Daryl Roth Theatre and was featured in Smith & Kraus’ New Playwrights: Best Plays of 2006.
The play came back to Maine in 2006 for a Penobscot Theatre Company production with the New York actors that set box-office records in Bangor before going on the road for performances in Houlton and Caribou.
Since then, it has been popular in community theaters and colleges and in 2009-’10 unseated Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the most popular play produced in North American high schools. Among 600 productions all over the world are performances in Korea, Australia, Canada, Germany and the United Arab Emirates.
“Yes, it’s a play for northern Mainers, but it has become a bit of a phenomenon all over the place,” Cariani said. “It’s surprisingly universal.”
Drawing on his memories of northern Maine, Cariani recalled situations that were poetic and language that was direct. His episodes portray the excitement of new love and the pain of unexpressed love. Words and expressions become actions and props. Puns are both visual and verbal.
“I love the way people talk,” Cariani said in a 2006 interview. “All people think the same things about the basics — living, loving, dying. It’s interesting to see what words people attach to those things.”
When Cariani moved to Presque Isle from East Bridgewater, Mass., as an elementary school student, he loved winter and being able to see a mountain from his bedroom window. But he realized that kids from the country could do a lot more things than “townies.” His appreciation of that innate intelligence inspired him to tell stories he did not hear on the stages of New York.
“No one owns the ability to tell a good story,” he said. “The most important stories are about real people doing real things. New York is repulsed by folk art. It’s not respected. So I decided to try my hand at telling stories.”
Disenchanted with entertainment that was selfish and star-centered, he set out to see if he could make New York aware of the beauty and honesty of Aroostook County on a New York stage. He let true stories of people and places “live in him” for a while until they came out as fiction — real stories about people in love — interlaced with traces of the supernatural.
“Fiction is so important,” he said. “Fiction touches people, touches the soul.”
So, even though some of the details in his play are an in-joke between Cariani and the people of Aroostook County, “Almost, Maine” touches almost anyone who has been in a relationship.
“There is an elegance in the way people live life,” Cariani said of his childhood home. “They are smart, talented people and their humility is truly refreshing. I loved high school and living there. I missed it more than I thought I would.”
Is Cariani’s memory of Aroostook better than what he actually experienced? Maybe, but that’s OK. He doesn’t worry about whether memories are better or worse than reality.
“It’s good for people to remember, even if it’s better. The saddest thing about technology is that memory is being usurped. We forget to sit and remember,” he said.
“I love to sit and remember as only I can remember it. These days we are so busy recording and documenting our lives, sometimes it feels like we’re not really . . . experiencing.”
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 by e-mail at email@example.com.