Our hearts seem to us to be tender, blood-pumping organs from which our desires and commitments stem, but in playwright John Cariani’s “Almost, Maine,” hearts are broken pieces of slate, pixelated paintings, and laundry bags filled with all the love given during a decade-long relationship.
North Fork Community Theatre’s new production of this tender group of vignettes about the love lives of residents of a not-quite town called Almost, Maine, comes just a few weeks early for Valentine’s Day, but it will give you just long enough to reevaluate your own feelings about love and commitment in time to share them on Feb. 14.
Magic is at work among the 19 characters portrayed by four actors in this play, which premiered at the Portland Stage Company in 2004 and had a brief Off-Broadway run in 2006.
We’re given glimpses into the lonely inner lives of repairmen, mill workers, heating company owners and the women who love, nag, harangue and bear children with them in nine sketches, each of which illuminates love in a magical way — from the flash of the aurora borealis to a mis-inked tattoo that foreshadows a new relationship to a man suffering from inability to feel pain whose senses suddenly become alive.
These narrative devices may at first seem hokey, but the earnestness and comedic timing of this cast breathes life into these character sketches, under the able guidance of director Robert Horn, with good advice from the playwright, who writes that “there is no need to sentimentalize the material. Just… let it be what it is — a play about real people who are really, truly, honestly dealing with the toughest thing there is to deal with in life: love.”
While the playwright does not give direction on which combinations of characters should be played by which of the four actors, the actors in this production are given parts that well suit them.
The men here are given more of a hearty inner life than the women.
Colin Palmer offers tender but manly portraits of a repairman named East who attempts to fix the shattered slate pieces of a widowed stargazer’s heart; of the aforementioned feelingless man, scribbling excitedly in journals about the pain and fear of others’ human encounters; of an ice fisherman flabbergasted when his best friend falls in love with him; and of a snowmobile-riding painter who falls in love with a hyper-competitive outdoorswoman.
John Lovett absorbs women’s wavering feelings from one character to the next, as a small business owner hiding at a back table at the Moose Paddy bar when he inadvertently witnesses his ex-girlfriend’s bachelorette party, as a veteran of an 11-year relationship whose girlfriend tries to give back the bags and bags full of love he’d given her, and as a married man who finds a woman he’d once proposed to on his doorstep, apologizing, in the middle of the night.
Tamara Flanell ably plays some tough women, the first of whom believes she killed her husband because he died in a car crash while distraught when she wouldn’t take him back after his infidelity. Her characters demand much of their men, and seem blind to all they’ve already been given by guys who quietly bear the burden of the gulf that can exist between long-time lovers.
Sheila Griffin plays an increasingly spazzy bunch of girlfriends, beginning with the bachelorette caught at her party. Her nervous, apologetic characters are both sympathetic and scary, including a boarding house resident who can’t seem to stop hitting Colin Palmer’s character with an ironing board (it’s ok…he can’t feel pain) and Hope, her final character, mumbling almost incoherently, apologizing in the snowy midnight to a man who might once have been her husband.
The sparse set here works well with the production — five snow-covered pine trees that seem almost to be characters, two doorsteps distinguishable only by different house numbers, a park bench and a bar table with two chairs.
Costumer Deanna Andes provides a plethora of winter coats, hats, long johns, boots and ice skates that set a separate mood for each vignette — when the characters appear without gloves on, you feel cold for them. Bare hands, like bare hearts, are also characters in this play.
These elaborate costume changes may be responsible for some long breaks between scenes — the simple set changes certainly didn’t slow this play down. But this may just have been an opening-night kink that the theater will likely work out not too far into the run of this genuine and heartfelt play.
“Almost, Maine” continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Feb. 5. Tickets are $20 and are available online here or by calling 631.298.6328.