When "Almost, Maine" opened in Portland in 2004, the play was well-received and would go on to receive mixed reviews in New York a few years later. Today, it's one of the most frequently produced plays in the United States, particularly in high school and community theaters. “Almost, Maine” playwright John Cariani, who grew up in Presque Isle, joins the cast of the latest production at Portland Stage Company in celebration of Maine's bicentennial.
Almost, Maine, a fictitious town near the Canadian border, is the setting for a series of vignettes that explore the joys and the pitfalls of relationships.
In one scene, Cariani plays “Lendall” and answers the door to find his girlfriend “Gayle,” played by Samantha Rosentrator:
GAYLE: “I want it back.”
LENDALL: “ Huh?”
GAYLE : “I want it back. All the love I gave to you. I want it back.. NOW!”
These moments of pain and laughter, heartache and confusion, says John Cariani, were born from his interest in the subject of love, driven in part by his personal experience coming of age in the geographically isolated community of Presque Isle, Maine.
“When I was growing up I knew that I was a little bit different from other kids,” says Cariani. “I saw my friends having girlfriends, and I couldn't figure out why I wasn't very happy having girlfriends, and then I realized I didn't like girls,” says Cariani.
Cariani says he became almost obsessed with trying to figure out why love seems so easy for some people and so complicated for others.
“Almost, Maine” has now been performed in 20 countries, translated into more than a dozen languages and, according to Playbill Magazine, is the most produced play in North American high schools, surpassing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Our Town” and “The Crucible.”
The reason for its popularity, he says, may be its simple approach to exploring a universal human experience.
“I think it’s that people really like love stories, and especially fraught love stories that you're not sure are going to work out, and not quite sure it’s going to be okay,” says Cariani.
In those moments of discomfort, says Cariani, there is also humor.
“Watching people in pain is the funniest thing in the world, unfortunately,'' he says.
Cariani says he has always been committed to bringing real rural characters, who live and love as best they can, to the stage.
“Contemporary American art and culture doesn't really present multidimensional rural-dwelling people,” Cariani says. “Why don't we present these people, and when we do, why do we present them as drug addicts, or supporters of a certain political party? Why don't they have all of the foibles and all of the great things that make them fully human?” he asks.
“Almost, Maine,” with playwright Cariani in a starring role, runs through February 9 at Portland Stage Company. The play is soon to become a novel.