By AARON KRAUSE
It is frigid these days at Palm Beach Dramaworks (PBD). Therefore, frostbite is a distinct possibility in a part of South Florida. But a warmth also emanates from PBD’s stage. It is rejuvenating, wholesome, hopeful, and healing.
Could that warmth, in fact, counter the effects of frostbite? In the play, Almost, Maine, anything seems possible.
No doubt, strange things happen in John Cariani’s funny, charming, romantic, timely, magical, and universally popular play. It remains onstage at PBD, a nonprofit, professional, multi award-winning company in West Palm Beach, through Jan. 30 in a mostly polished production.
The frequently-mounted Almost, Maine, which theater makers have produced around the world, is an example of a genre called magical realism. Basically, that means fantastical things happen within a realistic setting. However, the characters accept the otherworldly occurrences as normal.
Meanwhile, magical realism asks audiences to suspend their disbelief. Fortunately, it is easy to do so while watching PBD’s production. That is, thanks, in part, to believable, energetic performances, and solid direction.
The play’s title refers to a make-believe town. It rests in remote, far-north Maine, almost into Canada. In fact, the town almost does not exist. Still, there are seemingly real people on stage. And they harbor real desires, concerns, hopes, and fears. One thing that unites them in the play is that they are all dealing, in some way, with that intense feeling of deep affection we know as “love.”
Almost, Maine is not a play with a traditional plot or structure. Rather, the piece comprises several vignettes that all take place on the same day, during the same time frame. Specifically, the setting is 8:50 p.m. to around 9 p.m. on a clear, cold, moonless Friday night in mid-winter. A prologue, interlogue, and epilogue help to remind audiences that the entire action transpires within those 10 minutes.
In Almost, Maine, the characters fall in love, out of love, return love, and demand love back. Unexpected and unrequited love are just two of the types in the play.
Magic might be in the air on this night thanks to the northern lights. This is a natural light display in Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions in northern parts of the world.
While the northern lights might be causing the play’s strange occurrences, the lights’ basis in not magical. Rather, the northern lights are based in science. In particular, energized particles from the sun slam into Earth’s upper atmosphere at speeds of up to 45 million mph. However, Earth’s magnetic field protects us from the onslaught. As Earth’s magnetic field redirects the particles toward the poles, the dramatic process transforms into a kind of lighting show.
In his script, the playwright very specifically tells theater makers how he would prefer they present Almost, Maine. In regards to recreating the northern lights, Cariani notes that they are “not complex and extravagant.” Instead, they are “clean lines of light – like ribbons or curtains.” In PBD’s production, lighting designer Kirk Bookman has recreated them in such a way that they look like far away clouds or ribbons of light. It is hard to discern any specific colors.
A knock on this production is that, in general, the rest of the lighting seems rather realistic. Instead, non-realistic lighting, mixed with realistic, would make more sense. After all, Almost, Maine falls into the genre of magical realism.
In terms of creating a magical atmosphere, mysterious music plays at one point as the northern lights “appear.” However, one might desire more such effects to capture the mysterious quality of the play. On the plus side, it really does look like snow is falling and on the ground.
Meanwhile, scenic designer Michael Amico has created basic sets which suggest locales. This works, because, as the playwright has noted, Almost’s residents live uncluttered lives. The backdrop consists of panels through which we see a winter landscape of snow, trees, and what resemble stars. Certainly, the backdrop is visually appealing and appropriate. For example, the stars reinforce the magical aspect of Almost, Maine.
The performers generally wear simple, functional, yet colorful winter clothes, which costume designer Brian O’Keefe has designed.
Under J. Barry Lewis’s assured, sensitive direction, the actors play their characters in a way that makes them seem like real people. None come across as caricatures or quaint eccentrics. Cast members, each of whom plays more than one role, have created distinct, three-dimensional characters. Their emotions seem real, and they react to occurrences and others with spontaneity. Equally important, the performers demonstrate deft comic timing, and skillfully use periods of silence to nonverbally communicate feelings. Lewis paces the production well, and has created some striking stage pictures.
The performers are, in alphabetical order according to their last name, Irene Adjan, Niki Fridh, Brandon Morris, and Shane R. Tanner. Meanwhile, understudies are Jeanine Gangloff Levy and David A. Hyland.
Almost, Maine might not be for everyone. For instance, if you prefer serious plays with traditional plots and structures, you will walk away disappointed. But Cariani’s piece contains plenty of humanity, humor, heart, and hope.
Surely, with the state of the world, we could use all four.
The play also emphasizes the importance of connection, something we know all too well these days.
Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of Almost, Maine continues through Jan. 30 at the company’s intimate theater, 201 Clematis St. in West Palm Beach. For performance times and ticket prices, go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org. Almost, Maine has its own website. To view it, go to https://www.almostmaine.com.