If you're one of those folks excitedly looking forward to snow, and this week's forecasted highs in the 60s are bringing you down, you can step into a cold New England night this weekend and bask (sort of) in that chilly atmosphere – plus get a warm, bountiful evening of entertainment – at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre.
The venue is presenting its last show of the 2023 season: Almost, Maine, by John Cariani. The playwright was previously best known for playing crime-scene-unit technician Julian Beck on Law & Order, and he's done lots of film, TV, and stage work – in fact, he's a Tony- and Grammy-nominated musical-theatre performer. However, this play, which premiered in 2004, may be his career legacy. (I'll tell you why in a bit.) Cariani also turned the Almost, Maine script into a novel in 2020, because what else is an actor going to do during a pandemic?
Director (and frequent area actor) Kathy Graham does a fine job bringing this compelling script to life with her staff, crew, and cast. Almost, Maine doesn't have the conventional dramatic structure we're used to, but consists of separate vignettes about love, usually involving two people. All the scenes take place on the same evening, in the same sparsely populated locale in Maine – it's not a town, but Almost. In this piece, 12 actors play 22 roles, and along with the play's unusual structure, the rules of its universe are unconventional. It's a blend of romance, mystery, and a touch of magic realism, and while there's much comedy, there's lots of heart, too. Lives aren't at stake, but loves are.
I would've expected this selection to be part of the Barn Owl series, which showcases lesser-known scripts than the typical mainstage fare. However, it may be too famous to qualify, as Almost, Maine is one of the most frequently produced plays in the United States. Counting this one, there have been at least 13 productions in the area; four at Quad Cities theatres and nine at schools. Muscatine Community College is currently rehearsing for their December presentation, and that'll make it 14 local productions. So I've heard of it – I've even auditioned for it – but Friday's opening-night performance was my first time seeing it.
Anna Kronenberger was such a treat as British neighbor Cecily in Playcrafters' 2022 The Odd Couple, and in one of her roles here – a high-energy, nervous one – she sets up camp in what turns out to be the backyard of Bill Peiffer's character. Peiffer is good at playing pompous and dignified, so it was fun to see him being exceedingly awkward, as well as alternately stern and compassionate. Kronenberger also plays opposite frequent local actor Ashley Hoskins in another scene – they're a couple of boisterous pals commiserating about the annoyances of dating. Oddly, in this production, their vignette is a remake of an earlier, identical scene involving Noah Stivers (already skilled at playing multiple roles in one production) and Thayne Lamb (so damn good in everything). This scene repetition isn't in the script; I imagine that it's meant to heighten the surrealism that permeates Almost. Or, the actors are so good that Graham couldn't decide which pair should play the scene.
Lamb and Ashley Gomez, in a recent return to the stage, are in one of my favorite scenes. In an accidental encounter in a laundry room, he tells her matter-of-factly that his brother tells him he has "a lot of deficiencies and not very many capacities." But as they learn about each other, they also learn that, just maybe, that's not true. Bailey Hager also performs with Lamb, the pair portraying snowmobiling friends who might become more, and her discomfiture is amusing, but heart-tugging. Joe Sager, whose Achilles I so enjoyed at Genesius Guild this past summer, also plays opposite Hager in an accidental meeting of exes, and later appears in a fascinating scene opposite the versatile Storm Marie Baca.
Lauren Larson, who was wonderful as a lead in Augustana College's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying almost five years back, has a meaty part here, as well – she plays a lot of emotion in an almost offhanded way that somehow intensifies the drama. Nathan Lundburg, whose work I've loved since I saw him in Playcrafters' She Kills Monsters, spends much of his stage time alone, including during intermission. His despair and indecision is devastating. Tabitha Oles, a natural actor who has also performed with New Ground Theatre, plays a woman who knocks on a former boyfriend's door, only to find someone else living there.
As for physical expressions of love – well, there's a fair amount of kissing, but no one goes further. Although it's true that, in one scene, characters do a heck of a lot of undressing, you never see skin, because … . Well, it's winter. In Maine. So many clothes. Almost, Maine is like nothing you've ever seen, unless you've already seen the show. Yet even if you have, I recommend you attend, and enjoy what these extraordinary performers do with it.
Almost, Maine runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline IL) on December 1 and 2 at 7:30 p.m., and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 and visiting Playcrafters.com.