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Syracuse Stage opens

Image courtesy of Syracuse Stage.

My sister married a man from Maine named Billy, a chef, with a wide smile like the young John Denver and a real lobsterman for a father. Visiting them, I learned of the custom to leave your holiday lights up all winter so the drive home at night along darkened roads through the woods would not be so bleak. Even along the milder coast in southern Maine, the winter is serious business.

One of John Cariani's characters in "Almost, Maine," a joint production with Rochester's Geva Theatre Center which opened last week at Syracuse Stage and also involves lights, explains to an outsider that the notorious, often-caricatured Maine accent belongs to natives of the southern part of the state -- like my brother-in-law -- and those in the north don't have one. Nor is Almost anywhere near the ocean. Instead the mythical town lies deep in the woods of Aroostook, the state's vast, sparsely populated, northernmost county. Another character notes that Almost was never legally incorporated -- "We never got organized," he observes -- and the Maine-familiar would likely know that the state also doesn't even run the schools that far north; the timber companies do.

John Cariani left his native northern Maine in 1995 for New York City and an acting career in stage and television, but by 1996 he was in a workshop at NBC and had started the nine linked vignettes that comprise "Almost, Maine."

The play premiered in 2004 at Portland Stage Company in Portland, Maine, opened Off-Broadway in 2005, and has had over 300 productions internationally. "Almost, Maine" also broke attendance records for Portland Stage Company and, as directed by Geva's Skip Greer, for Rochester's Geva Theatre too -- by playing it straight and not taking the "cutesy" route that might tempt some directors to gloss over its deeply mournful undercurrent. Instead, cast member Patrick Noonan says that Maine audiences appreciated that the play "doesn't talk down to them." Among these nineteen characters -- all played by the excellently matched Noonan, David Mason, Regan Thompson, and Alexis McGuinness -- not being verbose doesn't mean they aren't deeply expressive, and portraying their reticence doesn't rely on deadpan clich (c). Love is precious in a cold world, and Cariani's people ring true, true, true.

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