Syracuse Stage opens

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 03/29/10More articles
Image courtesy of Syracuse Stage.

My sister married a man from Maine named Billy, a chef, with a wide smile like the young John Denver and a real lobsterman for a father. Visiting them, I learned of the custom to leave your holiday lights up all winter so the drive home at night along darkened roads through the woods would not be so bleak. Even along the milder coast in southern Maine, the winter is serious business.

One of John Cariani’s characters in "Almost, Maine," a joint production with Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center which opened last week at Syracuse Stage and also involves lights, explains to an outsider that the notorious, often-caricatured Maine accent belongs to natives of the southern part of the state – like my brother-in-law – and those in the north don’t have one. Nor is Almost anywhere near the ocean. Instead the mythical town lies deep in the woods of Aroostook, the state’s vast, sparsely populated, northernmost county. Another character notes that Almost was never legally incorporated – “We never got organized,” he observes – and the Maine-familiar would likely know that the state also doesn’t even run the schools that far north; the timber companies do.

John Cariani left his native northern Maine in 1995 for New York City and an acting career in stage and television, but by 1996 he was in a workshop at NBC and had started the nine linked vignettes that comprise "Almost, Maine."

The play premiered in 2004 at Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine, opened Off-Broadway in 2005, and has had over 300 productions internationally. "Almost, Maine" also broke attendance records for Portland Stage Company and, as directed by Geva's Skip Greer, for Rochester’s Geva Theatre too – by playing it straight and not taking the “cutesy” route that might tempt some directors to gloss over its deeply mournful undercurrent. Instead, cast member Patrick Noonan says that Maine audiences appreciated that the play “doesn’t talk down to them.” Among these nineteen characters – all played by the excellently matched Noonan, David Mason, Regan Thompson, and Alexis McGuinness – not being verbose doesn’t mean they aren’t deeply expressive, and portraying their reticence doesn’t rely on deadpan cliché. Love is precious in a cold world, and Cariani’s people ring true, true, true.

A couple snuggles on a park bench, watching the Northern Lights, and his attempt to be profound sends her away. A lonely man crosses paths with a young woman he dated. Hopes rekindled, he discovers she’s there for her bachelorette party the night before her wedding – though a spelling mistake prepares him for a new romance with the waitress. Two neighbors look at upping the ante in the laundry room of their building. A woman named Hope tries to go home again.

In several of the most memorable vignettes, Cariani deftly uses physical metaphor to extend the already rich non-verbal expression his characters have. A couple whose marriage has gone sour tries to recover their romance on an ice-skating date, and each sees the other shoe drop. A woman carries her broken heart in a paper sack and encounters a repairman who’ll fix it. Two buddies sharing a beer discover their feelings for each other knock them for a loop. In a variation on the old circus joke of how many clowns can this Volkswagen hold, two friends from the plywood plant go snow-mobiling, discover kissing’s not hard after all and show us that ripping off one’s clothes in the dead of winter might be unexpectedly complicated.

That "Almost, Maine" is a series of linked one-act plays also doesn’t mean Cariani has just thrown together some dramatic sketches. He says he likes short-form drama on stage and short stories in prose, and each of these is tightly and strongly developed. It’s a pleasure to learn that he’s also working on another set of one-acts and a full-length play, also set in Almost, titled "Last Gas."

Syracuse Stage also launches a new warm-up to performances called Prologues. Beginning one hour before curtain, a cast member hosts an informal conversation for 20-25 minutes with patrons who wish to get settled in early. Prologues offer some back-story about the play and the actor’s take on it. Actor Patrick Noonan does all the Prologues for this play and he seems the ideal choice. This is his third production of "Almost, Maine," and he’s so fond of the play that he proposed its production to Rochester’s Geva Theatre Center.

Take your honey to this one. It’s a winner.

This review appears in the April 1, 2010 print edition of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. “Almost, Maine” continues through April 11 at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse 13210. For tickets, 315.443.3275 or Discounts available for seniors, students, groups and subscribers; rush tickets available day of performance. Syracuse Stage also now sells copies of “Stone Canoe” in the lobby during performances; the Stage's Kyle Bass will edit a new section on drama in the 2011 issue. Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Syracuse Stage, Geva Theatre Center, John Cariani, Skip Greer, David Mason, Alexis McGuinness, Regan Thompson, Patrick Noonan, Almost Maine the play, Nancy Keefe Rhodes
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.5/5 (10 votes cast)

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