Maine and its people are often the butt of New England jokes, much as the U.P. and Yoopers are often viewed in a stereotypical light by those of us downstate. And yet for outsiders, there’s something terribly appealing about places far north and the requisite ways of being amid interminable winter set apart from the rest of civilization — at least to peer in at from afar.
Such is the case with John Cariani’s delightful play in vignettes, "Almost, Maine"—an absurdist romantic comedy with a touch of magical realism. Much like the beloved 1990s television series “Northern Exposure” or Jeff Daniels’ “Escanaba in Da Moonlight,” the light-hearted character-driven stories that make up the 80-minute play are wonderfully weird, often laugh-out-loud funny, and successfully skirt the edges of sentimentality to speak to larger truths about love and friendship in a place that feels like it’s at the end of the world.
It’s a perfect choice for What A Do Theatre and for this particular time of year. Love amid the freezing cold isn’t far from our minds in Southwest Michigan in February, and the idea of the longest striptease ever with layer upon layer needing removal after snowmobiling is especially humorous because it hits close to home.
And the ensemble cast of nine, many of whom are regular players at What a Do, portray nearly 20 characters. Directed with heart by Randy Wolfe, they deliver some of their finest performances — with a universal sense of natural ease and excellent comedic timing.
Such comedic timing is crucial in scenarios that include a woman who carries her broken heart in a flannel sack while en route to make peace with her recently deceased partner whose spirit she’s seeking in the aurora borealis; a much-needed bar in which you drink for free if you’re sad; a guy with congenital analgesia who doesn’t suffer when hit over the head with an ironing board but also can’t know love; a woman who delivers all her boyfriend’s love back to him in giant biohazard trash bags; a woman who returns years later to say “yes” to a marriage proposal she ignored; a fighting married couple who pretend to enjoy a rare ice skating date but are really just waiting for the other shoe to drop; and best friends who only realize they’re in love after they literally keep falling down in each other’s presence.
All of it comes to life with simple yet effective design by the multi-talented Samantha Snow, whose set offers three distinct spaces that with minimal set pieces carried on and off for scene changes clearly delineates space and time. Snow’s lighting design, too, impressively creates the feel of a spectacular show of Northern Lights as well as funny flashes of romance. Technically, this production does a lot with very little and keeps the focus on the characters, which is exactly where it should be.
Though the actors rarely get the Maine accent just right, they do get the rhythm and the way of speaking as offered in the script (“Jeeze M. Crow!” as an exclamation and “wicked” as a positive adverb, for example). Also, they hardly need to sound like they’re in Maine because they so convincingly look like they’re in Maine. And the world created on the stage is so familiar in so many ways to What a Do audiences, it makes sense and enhances our connection to the characters and their strange ways of falling in and out of love that they sound like people we know.
What a Do Theatre