John Cariani, director Sally Wood, Kathy McCafferty, Samantha Rosentrater and Raymond McAnally of "Almost, Maine," at Portland Stage Company. (PSC/Mical Hutson)
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Running into an old flame at the Moose Paddy bar, modeling the metaphysics of intimacy using a snowball, and peeling off a dozen winter layers for romance: These are just a few of the rural northern love scenes of “Almost, Maine,” the beloved comedy by John Cariani, the New York-based theater artist who grew up in Presque Isle.

Since first premiering at Portland Stage Company in 2004, “Almost” has gone all over the world and become one of the most-produced plays in America. Now, Portland Stage brings it back as a charmed kickoff to Maine’s bicentennial celebration, in a production whose ensemble includes Cariani himself (with Dustin Tucker subbing Feb. 5-7). 

“Almost” has a sweet and ebullient homecoming at PSC, as directed by Sally Wood with her characteristic brio, and the show’s whimsical appeal holds up. In Anita Stewart’s scenic design, the fictional town of Almost (a verbal play on Cariani’s “almost an island” hometown) is luminous in its winter-sky blues, the distant amber lights of stars and windows, and the gleam of ice under slender birches.

And Cariani and the rest of the ensemble – Raymond McAnally, Kathy McCafferty, and Samantha Rosentrater – move nimbly and animatedly through their range of characters: a tough, tomboyish, Polaris-loving virgin; a local girl who moved to the city venturing back north, too late, to tell a man “yes”; two beer-quaffing male buddies suddenly “falling,” literally, in love. 

Watching “Almost” again these years later, I’m struck once more by how the charm of its broad Maine tropes are tempered by its surprising little shards of magical realism – a heart turned into slate and broken into audible pieces; a missing boot falling from the sky; love returned to a lover in huge, translucent bags of scintillating air.

And as far as I’m concerned, the show has earned its well-loved success. Cariani has created a constellation of tight and theatrically deft vignettes, each a carefully crafted mechanism of desires, comedic gags, and turns. 

And for all the Maine tropes that it now campily embraces (snowmobiles, the Moose Paddy), now pushes against (the Southern visitor who thinks all Mainers are lobstermen), Cariani’s show is also appealingly universal. In fact, “Almost, Maine” isn’t really about Maine so much as it uses the north as an archetypal setting, one whose cold, isolation, and stark beauty unlocks particular realms of the psyche. Who hasn’t felt they needed to be peeled like an onion to access their most tender places?

Almost” treats vulnerability, disconnection, and loss with the same bright compassion as the more sparkly sides of love; even Cariani’s falling boot or funny business with a tattoo gone wrong doesn’t truly temper the truth that sometimes we love people who are just not going to love us back.

The greatest sweetness of “Almost, Maine” is in conjuring the almost-islands that all of us, regardless of latitude, sometimes feel we are.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

Almost, Maine,” by John Cariani. Directed by Sally Wood. Produced by Portland Stage Company, through Feb. 9. Visit portlandstage.org.

Playwright Megan Tripaldi and actor Mary Kate Ganza of “Symphony of New Works.” (Courtesy Megan Tripaldi)

‘Symphony of New Works’ celebrates change, marginalized voices

Theater artists, like so many others, continue trying to crack open the patriarchy. And here in Portland, we’re lately seeing some more intention in making space for voices at the margins of gendered identity.

Last season, Cast Aside Productions cast its production of “Cabaret” with all female and non-binary performers, and next week, Polyphonic Theatre Ensemble presents a new shorts program, “Symphony of New Works,” written exclusively by women and non-binary playwrights.

“To be frank, I was seeing a lot of writing from cis-gender white men,” said Megan Tripaldi, Polyphonic’s artistic director, “and I felt the need to help create a platform for … well, not that.”

While opportunities have increased for women playwrights, Tripoli acknowledged, who identifies as a non-binary woman and uses the pronoun they, more female and LGBTQ2+ voices need to be raised and heard. 

Chosen from an open call, the scripts of the program “touch upon mental health, sex, passion, pain, choice,” Tripaldi said, “but the common theme is defiance.”

Suze Quackenbush puts a modern edge on “The Trojan Women in #MeToo in Troy,” while Victoria Machado’s “Always There” tells of a teen and their not-so-benevolent imaginary friend. The queen of the centipedes has a complex love life in Catia Sofia Cunha’s “Legs,” former angels learn how to “pass” as mortals in Tripaldi’s own “Instructions for the Fallen,” and Henry VIII’s last wife makes a tough decision in “Henry” by Alexa Gallant. 

Nineteen-year-old Gallant, who grew up in Augusta and now attends Emerson College, began writing “Henry” during high school at Maine Arts Academy. “At the time, the MeToo movement was just starting,” she said, “and that inspired me to make it a play about the injustices that women experienced in the past, as well as the injustices that women are still facing today.”

The seeds of Tripaldi’s own play began while they were portraying Satan in a production of “Paradise Lost.” 

“The idea that non-conformity, that again defiance is what got these beings kicked out of their home spoke to me deeply,” they said. “I wanted to create and celebrate a world where being ‘different’ was beautiful and could give you community.” 

Tripaldi hopes “Symphony” will encourage other area companies to celebrate difference and new voices at the margins. “We are a community, after all,” they said. “Let’s lift each other up.”

— Megan Grumbling

“Symphony of New Works, An Evening of Short Plays by Women and Non-Binary Writers.” Produced by the Polyphonic Theatre Ensemble. At the Portland Stage Studio Theater, Feb. 6-8. Visit polyphonictheatre.org.