Almost, Maine, a 2006 play written by actor John Cariani, is the most produced play in North American high schools, recently supplanting the over-produced and retirement-ready A Midsummer Night's Dream. Its popularity is largely due to its simple setup: the show is made up of nine short plays, all exploring themes of love and loss, and all set in the remote snowbound tundra of Almost, Maine. The location carries an almost magical aura, thanks in no small part to the majestic allure of the aurora borealis (the northern lights). The College of Charleston's production of this play bottles that magic like children catching fireflies.
Under the eye of director Evan Parry, the student cast of Almost, Maine delivers. Each scene is a 10-minute play, in essence, all tied together through theme, location, and the occasional mention of characters. So the show lends itself well to a college production. No scenes run overlong and no performances run out of steam. It's like watching a best-of collection of acting scenes, with fantastic design elements and a full house for Thursday night's opening. These students know their material, and never once come off as children playing adults, but handle even the emotional weight of a married couple on the rocks (Meg Fannin-Buckner and David Beckett, in a scene whose ending seemed to fly over the heads of half the audience). All are strong actors, and some (Kaitlin Lieck, Patrick Ruff, Haley Barfield, and Baker Chase Powell to name a few) deserve special praise for being absolutely hilarious.
The pieces themselves are either whimsical or poignant, and are all about love. Broken hearts, broken marriages, old flames, new beginnings, and second changes are all examined. The various scenes may not be everyone's cup of tea, but there should be something for everyone. It's like a stage version of Love, Actually or any of the generic knock-offs that have sprung up in its wake (I'm looking at you, Valentine's Day). One complaint that could come up is that some of the scenes are too saccharine or predictable, but for every one like that, there's another that will totally surprise you. And almost all the pieces stray from the beaten path into areas of surrealism or symbolism. A broken heart carried in a bag, a man who doesn't feel pain or emotion, and a woman returning all her boyfriend's love in a bag are just a few examples of some symbols that are made flesh in the play.
The scenic design by Hannah Strickland is highly functional and simple. Snow mounds, chairs, and a few sparse walls are all that occupies the space, allowing the northern lights and stars to shine bright. And boy, do they, thanks to a lovely starlit backdrop and incredible lighting design by Paul Collins (the college's new professor of lighting). One slight technical mishap during Thursday's performance caused the house lights to come on mid-scene, but props to Celeste Riddle and Robert Townsend for not only continuing the scene, but also powering through the audience's distraction to the emotional climax. Bravo, kids. The lighting effect at show's end elicited more than a few responses from audience members because of its sheer beauty.
Almost, Maine is a treat. It won't appeal to some, but romantic comedies never do see universal approval. But for those looking for a little light-hearted love to warm the cold nights on the horizon, follow the lights to Almost, Maine.