Tuesday, March 27, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Almost, Maine" at Scripps Ranch Theatre

A "Maine" Winter Night's Dream

The schmaltziness builds along with the snow in Scripps Ranch Theatre’s sweet and sentimental revival

By Donnie Matsuda

Chances are you’ve never heard of the rural Northeastern town of Almost, Maine.

The lonely locale at the heart of John Cariani’s charming play is not your typical setting for a contemporary romantic comedy. It’s actually a fictional town dreamed up by the playwright’s idealized imagination and populated with a handful of homespun characters who are so innocent and saccharine sweet – there’s no way that they or their snow-blasted, not-yet-organized “almost” town are in any way grounded in reality. Yet, there is something special (and not just overly-sentimental) that emerges as we are introduced to the 19 hopefully romantic characters who interact via two-character vignettes over the nine fanciful scenes of Cariani’s well-organized, smarmily written two act play. We learn that while Almost is about as remote a place as you can live in this country, the people there are as smitten and scorched by that evasive thing called love, just like everyone else.

Benjamin Cole and Samantha Ginn. Photo by Daren Scott.

But unlike the rest of us, the folks who inhabit this blistering and mostly barren town atop the Eastern Seaboard embrace some rather unrealistic and highly romanticized notions of what it means to fall in and out of love. Take, for instance, the case of Glory, a woman who carries the pieces of her broken heart around with her (literally) in a sac that she clutches to her chest as she desperately tries to bid farewell to her late husband’s spirit. And then there are Chad and Randy, two beer-guzzling lumberjacks who decide to take their bromance to the next level as they (again, literally) start to fall for each other. And finally, there is Gayle who storms into her fiancée’s apartment demanding back all the love she’s given him. She, by the way, has all the love he has given her in the back of her SUV.

If this all sounds a little preposterous and rather silly, it is. But the reason that Cariani’s play works so well is that it is smart enough not to take itself too seriously. Instead of preaching to us with relationship advice or trying to impress us with beautiful ballads about love and loss, he manages to covey all the quirky and wondrous elements of romance by presenting real interactions between real couples who are indulging in their own vivid pursuits of love. And these honest pursuits magically come to life in the careful and loving hands of the always professional Scripps Ranch Theatre, who is presenting the San Diego premiere of this piece, now through April 22. With their heartfelt staging, Almost, Maine not only sparkles with wit and charm, but it also manages to delight with some compelling and utterly earnest performances.

These performances are delivered by four incredibly talented actors (fashionably clad in warm winter parkas, ski caps and mittens thanks to costumer Jessica John Gercke) who seamlessly and believably portray the 19 different characters – and nine different couples - throughout the course of the chilly two hour play. All are incredibly strong actors and they effortlessly exude warmth and wackiness as they inhabit their oddball and eccentric personalities almost a little too well. Benjamin Cole really nails the more sweetly subdued male roles of Pete, a guy with the patience of God who waits forever for his love to return, and Steve, a man plagued with “congenital analgesia” who can’t feel pain no matter how many times he’s wacked over the head with an ironing board, while Joshua Jones does a bang up job with the more rough-and-tumble male roles of beer-guzzling womanizer Jimmy and frustrated, say-it-like-you-mean-it Phil. As their female counterparts, DeNae Steele is simply sublime as heartbroken Glory and as hardened Rhonda while Samantha Ginn shines in a series of joyful and spirited roles that inspire hope despite heartbreak.

Joshua Jones and DeNae Steele. Photo by Daren Scott.

Director Robert May brings out the best in his fearless cast as he mines Cariani’s cheeky charm for all that its worth. Not only does he manage to keep things flowing smoothly from scene to scene (the use of screens that project scene titles is pure genius) but he also approaches each scenario with a clean slate and allows his characters to fill in the vivid details with their colorful interactions. His slightly surreal vision is aided by a magical snowscape set designed by Amy Gilbert Reams and some starry, evocative lighting by Chad Oakley.

Of course, as you can imagine, this fanciful play is not for the cynical, hard-hearted among us. However, if you consider yourself a free-spirited hopeless romantic, then you should most definitely don your warm winter woolies and brave the winds of Almost, Maine.

It is sure to warm your heart and tickle every romantic bone in your body.

Things to know before you go: Almost, Maine presented by Scripps Ranch Theatre plays at The Legler Benbough Theatre at Alliant International University through April 22, 2012. Running time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Ticket prices are $25 with discounts available for students, seniors, and active military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 578-7728 or visit www.scrippsranchtheatre.org.

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