When an off-Broadway play flops and then goes on to become the most produced play in North American high schools, supplanting "A Midsummer Night's Dream," you have to respect it. When it also becomes one of the most produced professional and non-professional regional theater shows, you have to take a large step away from judgmental stances and look at it with a different sort of critical eye.
"Almost, Maine" is that play.
In the past five years I have seen four regional theater productions and, as I write this, two more are preparing to open in our area, one in Hartford and one in Berkshire County. That is three simultaneous productions right here. What is so special about this silly little romantic comedy of a non-musical revue?
To start with it has charm and wit and pathos. It has characters one can relate to even in an allegory. It has a through line, no two of them: Pete and Ginette are in love but Pete cannot reconcile their closeness with his understanding of our planet and how distance works; every couple who meet, re-meet, part or enlarge their relationships do so on the same star-filled, moonless winter night at 9 p.m. And for all of them the world has changed by 9:15 p.m.. There are eleven scenes in this play and each one is a story unto itself, including the three that concern Pete and Ginette.
At the Ghent Playhouse the production uses five performers. In other versions it has been performed by four or seven actors. There are 19 characters in all. Here the framework pair, Pete and Ginette, are played by Mark "Monk" Schane-Lydon and Prudence J.M. Theriault.
Schane-Lydon has become a Playhouse favorite over the past few seasons and he gets to show off his constantly increasing versatility in this one hundred-minute play. His Pete in the three scene framer is sweet and scientific. His Jimmy, in "Sad and Glad" is boisterous and threatening. His Steve is enigmatic and benign in the playlet "This Hurts." In "They Fell" his performance of Randy is just that. And in "Seeing the Thing" his Dave is sweetly innocent yet wily.
Theriault is easily his match as she takes Ginette to a genuinely delicate place. A long-time favorite with this company, it is wonderful to watch her alter character, voice and stance as the waitress in "Sad and Glad" and her restrained anger and her ultimate sense of awe in "Where It Went" was wonderful to watch.
Among the newer players is Todd Hamilton, who made his debut with the players here earlier this season. His five characters in "Almost, Maine" are differentiated principally by their odd situations and he plays them nicely. I particularly enjoyed his work in "Her Heart" as he deftly kept connecting with a paper bag that East, his character, shouldn't be holding.
Playing Lendall in "Getting It Back" he brought amazing sincerity to an allegorical situation, thus allowing the audience to truly believe in the possibility of what was being seen and heard.
In her first appearance, Sarah Elizabeth Lomerson was less flip as Sandrine than other actresses I have seen and her discomfort was a nice change in this play. In "Story of Hope" she took on a role that never really allows for her vis-a-vis to express much of his own and she played it with clarity and force and believability. In all her roles she came across as just right for the role, a nice initial impression in Ghent.
Meaghan Rogers, another first-time player here, has three difficult roles to play. In the first, "Her Heart," she played a woman with a broken heart mourning the death of her husband. In "This Hurts" she was clumsy, inept and abusive to a man with a disorder and she made all of those traits endearing.
Her final appearance in the show allowed her to portray someone with a different take on the natural order of things. She clearly defined each of her characters and worked well within the odd confines of this revue.
The production here can only be called wonderful. A beautiful, if slightly clumsy set, by Bill Visscher, wonderful lighting effects designed by Grace Fay, appropriate music and sound from Ben Heyman and perfect costumes by Joanne Maurer all aided director Cathy Lee-Visscher to bring the life of a small Maine unincorporated village to the stage in Ghent, New York.
Lee-Visscher's vision for the play, it seems to me, is the reality in the oddness, the familiarity in the unusual. In the playlet "They Fell" she presents the play's one odd relationship scene with a simplicity I have never seen before and she makes the difficult to accept into the hard-not-to accept with an eagerness and beauty that is marred only by its hesitant finale.
Two men, here, find themselves coming to an understanding about their failed affairs with women and all that this implies. The actors are given very credible postures and positions by the director and this carries the story forward with a delicious sense of masculine pride. Nice work.
Every time I see a production of this play I am thrilled to find new things in it. If you have seen it before, I recommend you try this version on for size and fit. If you've never seen it you are in for a real treat. And just think: you can compare it to two other editions of the same show within a month. That's only worth doing if you start in Ghent where it is very, very good.
"Almost, Maine" runs through Feb. 3 at the Ghent Playhouse located across the street from the Ghent Firehouse, just off Route 66 west of Chatham, NY. For info and tickets call 518-392-6264 or visit www.ghentplayhouse.org/