RIC Theatre explores the ups and downs of small town love with 'Almost, Maine,' Sept. 28-Oct. 2

There are probably more places like Almost, Me., than there are plays like “Almost, Maine.” And that’s part of its charm. The work is universal in its themes and pleasingly unconventional in its rendition of them.

Rhode Island College Theatre will stage “Almost, Maine,” by John Cariani, from Sept. 28-Oct. 2. Performances will take place in the Nazarian Center’s Forman Theatre at 8 p.m. from Sept. 28-Oct. 1 and at 2 p.m. on Oct. 1 and 2.

Besides being a playwright, Cariani is an actor of note. He had a regular role on the television series “Law and Order” and was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Motel the tailor in a 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof."

He is also a native of Presque Isle, Me., which is one of the models for the fictional Almost (along with Prescott and Portage Lake), so he knows the territory well.

But instead of turning that very familiar material into a continuous narrative, he fashioned it into a series of vignettes, all focusing on different aspects of love in a small northern town. He then added a twist to his theme-and-variations structure by having all of the incidents take place on a winter’s Friday night at 9 p.m., so that no character can appear more than once. This means that an actor has only the length of each vignette, around 15 minutes, to develop a character. Actors, however, can appear more than once, and Cariani suggests that “Almost, Maine” be played by four actors.

RIC theatre professor Jamie Taylor, who is directing the college’s production, believes that this type of development takes a special kind of chemistry, which is generated by the actors’ playing off each other.

“You really can’t teach chemistry,” he said. “You have to make it work. You have to make that magic happen in the play.

“I always tell my students, ‘have fun, try things, and if it doesn’t work, I’ll let you know.’

“With this play you definitely have a lot of fun. It’s a whimsical type play, and you don’t want to hold back. Play with the role, get into it. That’s where the magic will happen. That’s where full character development will happen.”

“Almost, Maine” has a cast of 19 characters, which in many productions are played by just four actors, but for the RIC production Taylor will be taking advantage of the resources of the theatre program and using about a dozen actors.

What attracted Taylor to “Almost, Maine” was its handling of what is probably the predominant stage emotion, love.

He said, “It’s a wonderful play about human relationships – how we find love and how we fall out of love. It has excellent comedic moments and also some very serious moments.”

Taylor also sees the play as a modern version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” especially when the wrong people fall in love.

Most of Cariani’s stories have a bittersweet taste. A long-married couple seeking to escape the routines of their life go ice skating, only to discover that the joy is gone from their relationship. A woman, who returns to town to accept a marriage proposal she left unanswered years before, discovers that the man is now married to another. And there are Randy and Chad, two guys who discover that their relationship involves a lot more than friendship.

“Almost, Maine” has an interesting genesis. Cariani began writing the vignettes as audition pieces. Then in the late 1990s, when he was performing them at Performance Space NBC in New York, theatre director Gabriel Barre saw them and suggested that Cariani make them into a play.

In 2002 the work was developed by Cape Cod Theater Project, and in 2004 it was premiered by the Portland Stage Company in Portland, Me., where it became the theatre’s most successful production in 32 years. Two years later it opened off Broadway, with Barre directing; however, it closed after a month.

Despite its short New York run, “Almost, Maine” had a second life as a highly popular staple at regional theatres across the U.S. and Canada. The play is now among the top 10 most performed in the U.S., and it has been produced in Australia, Dubai and South Korea.

When it comes to stage directions, Cariani is very detailed. One of the first things one encounters in the script of “Almost, Maine” are the words, “Please read and consider the stage directions carefully. They are part of the play and are crucial to telling the story.”

While that may make it easy for some directors, Taylor has mixed feelings about it and follows Cariani “suggestions,” as Taylor called them, about 50 percent of the time.

He said, “ I don’t want to do anything to disrupt the piece, but it is very important that I am able to have my own creativeness when I am directing and not be a prisoner to the playwright.”

Music is a particular area where Taylor likes to have autonomy, and that goes for just about any play he directs. He feels that it is a prime element in enhancing the scene and setting the mood.

He emphasized, “Music definitely becomes another character in the play, and so I take that very seriously.”

This attitude is not surprising considering that Taylor has a bachelor’s degree in radio, television and film acting. In those media, music selection is critical, and he carries that idea into his theatre practice.

Whatever music Taylor selects, it won’t be underscoring an intensely tragic or passionate love scene. That kind of emotion can’t be generated in a 15-minute vignette.

But “Almost, Maine” is not about that. It’s about love in street clothes. It’s the kind of love most of us identify with.

General admission is $15. Tickets can be purchased in advance via Visa or MasterCard by calling (401) 456-8144 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, or online at www.ric.edu/pfa.