PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Looking at the inspiration behind his most popular play — “Almost, Maine” — playwright and Broadway actor John Cariani often remembers something that fellow Aroostook County native and novelist Cathie Pelletier once told him.
“She said, ‘You write about the first 20 years of your life over and over because that’s when you learn the most in your head and in your heart’,” said Cariani, a 1987 graduate of Presque Isle High School.
Throughout his career, Cariani’s plays, which include “Almost, Maine,” “Last Gas,” “LOVE/SICK” and “cul-de-sac,” have focused on characters who live in rural northern Maine, and whose personal and romantic struggles often rival those of characters who live in more urban, middle or upper-class settings.
His personal experiences of growing up in Aroostook County — potato picking, performing in school theater productions, spending time with friends and appreciating the beauty of the region’s landscape — have inspired him.
“When I was in high school, my friends and I would drive around and go to a place just to hang out and talk,” Cariani said. “That’s what has always stayed with me.”
“Almost, Maine” is set in the fictional town of Almost, Maine, “a town that’s so far north, it’s almost not in the United States — it’s almost in Canada. And it almost doesn’t exist,” according to the play’s website. The romantic comedy follows characters in nine different stories, all of whom “find themselves falling in and out of love in the strangest of ways.”
“Almost, Maine” was first performed in Maine at the Portland Stage Company in 2004, and became the company’s most successful production. Over the years, the play has gained popularity, being performed nearly 5,000 times at professional, high school, university and community theater groups and hundreds of times across the world. The play has also been translated into 12 languages.
Cariani most recently adapted “Almost, Maine” into a novel that will be published and released by Macmillan on Tuesday, March 31. He returned to Portland Stage in January and February for the company’s revival of the play, and has since begun a supporting role in the Broadway revival of the musical “Caroline, or Change.”
While writing the novel version of “Almost, Maine,” Cariani was able to reflect on how he wants readers of all backgrounds to perceive the northern Maine characters he writes about. Even today, modern stories often portray rural people in terms of their political leanings or struggles with drug addiction, he said.
“Though many people in rural areas deal with those issues, if these artists actually visited northern Maine, they would think about all the wonderful people that they’re meeting and how beautiful the area is,” Cariani said. “There’s a humility and kindness to people in northern Maine that I miss.”
Unlike in the play, which is limited in timeframe and set designs seen on stage, Cariani used the novel version of “Almost, Maine” to delve more deeply into some of the realities of northern Maine, such as working low-wage jobs in places like wood chip mills, paper mills and potato processing plants and struggling to earn a living.
But he also retained what he feels is the spirit of the play’s stories: the characters’ often funny roads to love despite the challenges in their lives.
“It’s a collection of whimsical love stories set against the backdrop of hardscrabble living,” Cariani said. “I want readers to know that these characters are dealing with difficult things, but they still have a lot of joy in their lives.”
To this day Cariani credits his work ethic and success with the lessons he learned from mentors back home. As a high school student, he played the clarinet in the school band under teacher David Paiva, and acted in the drama club. He considers Barbara Frick-Ladner, former director of the Presque Isle High School Shipmates Playhouse, and her husband Dan Ladner, a longtime Aroostook theater teacher, along with Paiva to be his most influential mentors.
“David [Paiva] taught me how to show up every day and work hard,” Cariani said. “Dan and Barb [Ladner] demanded excellence from everyone in the drama club.”
Cariani has come a long way since his high school days. In 2004, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” and has since acted in Broadway musicals “Something Rotten!” and “The Band’s Visit,” the latter of which won 10 Tony Awards in 2018. He has also appeared in TV shows such as “Law and Order,” “Homeland,” “Numb3rs,” “The Good Wife” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
“Caroline or Change” opens on Broadway March 13.
Cariani has not visited Aroostook County since 2018, but he hopes to soon share the novel version of “Almost, Maine” with readers there by sharing his book at schools and libraries.
Though “Almost, Maine” is being marketed as a novel for young adults, Cariani said that people of any age could enjoy the stories. He especially hopes that readers in Aroostook County can see the appreciation he has for the place where he grew up.
“Northern Maine is still the place where I feel the most at home,” Cariani said.