Regional Reviews: Phoenix
One very chilly Friday night, the offbeat, slightly neurotic residents of Almost, Maine, find themselves tackling the many facets of love. Over a dozen scenes we meet the citizens of, and a couple of visitors to, this northern most town in Maine. Well, it isn't exactly a town, as we are told that the residents never got organized to make it one, so it's "almost" a town, hence the name. Each scene focuses on a different couple attempting to navigate their way through the always confusing maze of love. Topics include a forgotten anniversary, an unanswered proposal, and an ultimatum after a prolonged courtship with no proposal in site. Even though the pieces are short, running less than ten minutes each, Cariani has created fully fleshed out characters who deal with realistic situations. He also includes references to other characters we've previously met, as well as locations like the local favorite restaurant in town, to help instill a sense of community and link the short pieces together into a cohesive play. If you aren't completely taken by one piece, you only have to wait a few minutes for another set of characters to appear and another story about romance to hopefully enthrall you.
Director Richard Powers Hardt has done an exceptional job of steering his cast to achieve effective portrayals. While most of the pieces end with an ironic twist or a sweet surprise, he doesn't let his cast allow those moments to become cloying or unrealistic, and even instills many of the scenes with a profound sense of hope. Amanda Melby, Amy Garland, BJ Garrett, and Scott Hyder are the talented cast of four who portray their multiple parts with apparent ease. While Garland may get a few of the funnier characters and lines, there isn't a weak link in the group, with all four being exceptional in bringing both the humor and the seriousness in this collection of quirky stories about love to life.
Adding another bit of irony to the piece is how the chilly setting, which is beautifully, yet simply realized by set designer and director Powers Hardt, is completely at odds with the heat that burns within most of the pieces. It's a nice touch how Cariani decided to set the stories in such a cold environment, allowing the love and romance to stand apart from the location. The snowy set is complemented by Tamara Treat's perfect costumes that are a series of warm and fuzzy winter coats, the lighting design from Brandon Ehrenreich that paints a lovely image of the northern lights, and Matthew Sanders' effective sound design; all of these elements add to the ambiance of the play.
John Cariani's Almost, Maine is both funny and touching and Theater Works is presenting a well-crafted production of this popular play that ends up being surprising and engaging, achieved by an exceptional cast with clear and succinct direction. It may be starting to turn cold outside in the suburbs of Phoenix, but this collection of romantic stories is enough to warm the heart of any relationship skeptic.
Almost, Maine runs through November 15th, 2015, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623-815-7930.
Written by: John Cariani
*member, Actors' Equity Association