It’s more than a little jarring to walk in off the 80-degree-summer streets of Madison and be greeted by the sound of a howling wind and a snow-covered set for University Theater’s production of “Almost, Maine.” Director David Furumoto may lose points for inflicting some seasonal whiplash on his audience, but his show—with four performances Thursday through Saturday nights, June 22-24, and a matinee on Sunday, June 25—piles them up everywhere else.
John Cariani’s play is much beloved in drama circles—KRASS Theatre pulled one of its scenes for their most recent “Wrong for the Part”—and it takes almost no time to understand why. Ten vignettes find the residents of the titular, mythical town, played by a four-person cast that includes Christian Stevenson, Alexandria Chapes, Erik Bergeson and Jessie Reynolds fumbling, often awkwardly, often in deeply touching ways, trying to make human connections.
The connections sometimes erupt entirely out of the blue. It starts with Pete (Stevenson) nearly screwing up a romantic moment with Ginette (Chapes) with a silly physics lesson and wends its way from there.
Almost all of the scenes pack emotional moments, many revolving around unexpected objects. A woman’s broken heart becomes a real thing that a lovestruck repairman can hold in his hands and fix. A misspelled tattoo becomes a cosmic sign of possible redemption. In one of the show’s best scenes, the amount of love a couple (Stevenson and Reynolds) have given each other is granted physical representation in the form of overstuffed garbage bags. Clever, touching and remarkable.
Everything takes place on Gail Brassard’s sylvan set, centered by a gorgeously rendered deep purple sky where shooting stars and the shimmering bands of the Northern Lights seem to evoke the face of some higher being. No wonder everyone’s eventually touched by the magic.
Or crushed when the magic fizzles. Bergeson and Reynolds do a great job of capturing the anger in the second of two scenes called “They Fell,” a vignette that finds a struggling married couple waiting, both physically and metaphorically, for the final shoe to finally drop. The fact that a few of the stories don’t find happy endings provides balance and emotional honesty to the proceedings.
The playwright notes in the program reveal how much detail Cariani has invented to describe his hypothetical town, and careful listeners will catch the threads that tie all these stories together, such as when characters in one scene will name-check characters in another. We may not be able to visit Almost for more than a couple hours, but even the brief journey is worth it.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning theater coverage for madisonmagazine.com.