If you sign up for CPCC Theatre’s webcast of John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, you may wind up noticing that it has more than a couple common features with CPCC’s other online production, Terry Gabbard’s Our Place. Both shows are comprised of multiple vignettes, both feature some of the same actors, and both share the same stage and elements of the same Kenton Jones set design. Both are also situated in places that tie together their varied vignettes, the sort of place we might think seriously about escaping to during a pandemic — particularly in the toxic twilight of Mr. Tangerine Man’s bizarre presidency.
The pandemic, however, follows both productions — Cariani’s suite directed by Ron Chisholm and Gabbard’s by James Duke — out into their forlorn wildernesses. As a result, these escapes glow with an extra sheen of poignancy, for all the players — dating, breaking up, carousing at a bar, or bickering on a family outing — are doing the right thing, the CDC thing, and the governor’s executive order thing: They are wearing masks.
It’s a curious collision. Wild pristine places you might dream of escaping to, away from the constraints of our COVID-infested civilization, are strangely populated with people who are devoutly wearing their mandated masks — as if they hadn’t escaped at all.
Cariani and Gabbard surely didn’t pen their blackout sketches envisioning that someday they would be performed by acting troupes wearing surgical masks. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if their granting of licensing rights to CPCC Theatre hinged on the condition that everybody onstage would be masking up.
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After a dopey prologue, a native explains to a visitor that Almost comes by its name naturally, since there aren’t quite enough people, facilities, or initiative for the place to earn a spot on the map with Maine’s more substantial towns. It “doesn’t quite exist,” according to Cariani’s script. And the unreality of the place manifests itself fairly quickly, for the pilgrim who is hoping to glimpse the Northern Lights, Glory, is carrying her broken heart in her backpack, while her lovestruck host, East, is not particularly interested in debunking her wild story.
CPCC Theatre presented the Charlotte premiere of Almost in 2011, a little more than a year after Davidson Community Players brought their production to Spirit Square. Seeing it now during the Trump twilight, I find the goofball flavor altered somewhat. In “Her Heart,” the scene with the Northern Lights, I couldn’t escape the notion that I was watching extraterrestrial aliens becoming intimate. In “Seeing the Thing,” where Dave finds himself at Rhonda’s front door for the umpteenth time after a fun evening together — without being invited inside — their progress toward a long-delayed first kiss seems a bit like a Peanuts special when framed by a small screen.
Daniel Keith and Corina Childs deliver the comedy endearingly, quickening the pace awkwardly and adorably when they begin peeling off their clothes after their first kisses, but their brightly colored outerwear and all the garish underthings they tug off each other only heightened my impression that I was watching a cartoon. Garish jackets, woolly ski caps, and artsy masks push us toward the realms of Homer Simpson and Planet of the Apes. Add a couple of floppy ear flaps, and I sensed a Charlie Brown Thanksgiving right around the corner.
Can you literally return all the love your boyfriend has given you? In Almost you can, as Gayle, infused with extravagant irrationality by Hannah Snyder, demonstrates by lugging suitcase after suitcase filled with it into a hapless Lendall’s living room. Responding to Hannah’s imperious demand that he return all her love, Andrew Blackwell as Lendall returns with a wee little red pouch — without faulting his beloved for the disparity. You can’t help feeling for the flummoxed lad.
East, a repairman, can have a go at fixing Glory’s broken heart in Almost. Two men in “They Fell,” Chad and Randy, can overcome their rustic inhibitions there and literally fall in love, with Griffin Digsby and Jacob Feldpausch executing an orgy of pratfalls. Chisholm, costume designer Beth Levine Chaitman, and the cast are ultimately on-target in their efforts to broaden the comedy. My smart TV isn’t quite as big as life, so this whimsical Maine can stand a modicum of upsizing.
Aside from the prologue and epilogue, there are eight vignettes in this cozy comedy. Cariani wrote it with four actors in mind, including himself, but Chisholm spreads the precious stage exposure to 16 people, including some you may have met back in September in CPCC’s Virtual Whodunnit.
Childs and Keith come the closest to tying all these vignettes together in “Seeing the Thing,” when Dave begins to enumerate all the Almost folk who have told him that he and Rhonda should be together. That rollcall ought to compound the happy ending when Dave finally gets to cross his beloved’s threshold, but Chisholm has pushed this scene up one slot and saved the sadder “Story of Hope” for last.
That puts Tony Cudic and Quincy Stanford in a bittersweet finale as the title character returns to answer her high school sweetheart’s marriage proposal after many years of absence — long enough ago that Hope doesn’t recognize her Danny. Two dividends from transposing the last two vignettes: We’re not closing with a scene that mandates the two masked kisses we see in “Seeing the Thing,” and in “The Story of Hope,” we now have an additional reason to believe that a woman who has traveled 163 miles by taxi to say yes to a marriage proposal might not recognize that man at the front door of his house.
He’s wearing a mask to greet a stranger!
The bittersweet ending of CPCC Theatre’s Almost, Maine also meshes well with the more dramatic tone and consequential events of Our Place. Utilizing 14 players, half of whom also double as Almost citizens, Our Place is especially well-named a for local production. Gabbard’s play actually premiered here in Charlotte at the 2014 North Carolina Theatre Conference, performed by students of Ardrey Kell High School and directed by the playwright with Brian Seagroves.
Although projection designer Jeff Childs pushes the envelope a little, all five scenes — and a collective epilogue — occur at the same place. A weathered dock stretches across the upstage and extends a couple of arms toward us along the wings. The aura of a special, secret, and secluded place is somewhat contradicted by this dock and the wide canoe nestled against it in the water (imagination needed here), but that myth is exploded in the opening scene.
Hoping to impress his new girlfriend, Jake tells Holly that he is responsible for fixing up this hideaway, forgotten since real estate developers purchased it decades ago. Jake is in the middle of laying a “love blanket” on Holly — along with additional BS about their special place — when his former girlfriend Anne arrives with her new boyfriend, introducing him to their special place.
In the fracas that erupts, Gracie Page as Anne has the more serious grievances, so if you find yourself liking Brandon Scott as Jake, it will be more for his elaborate rascality than for his counterclaims or penitence. Three of the remaining four scenes are more obviously two-handers. In “Flick of the Wrist,” Corina Childs plays a daughter trying to connect with Tony Cudic as her widowed dad. “Tuna Fish” exposes the fissure between Yazmin Battee as Liberty, a woman so worried about her future that she cannot enjoy the moment, and Jacob Feldpausch as Corey, too smug in his rut to change course or see what’s coming.
“Stay With You” was easily the most haunting of Gabbard’s two-handers, with Andrew Blackwell as a moody, rebellious teen and Avery Ruse as his pesky 6-year-old sister who pursues him to his secret retreat. Hoping to heal the rift between Stanley and his family, little Sidney achieves the exact opposite.
Midway through Our Place, “Famtime” is the scene that has the most affinity with Cariani’s comedy. J. Michael Beech as gung-ho dad Al drags the rest of the Gilbert household to their place because dammit, they’re going to have some fun together as a family. Michael Fargas as the disaffected son and Summer Schroter as the ditzy daughter aren’t close to sharing Dad’s enthusiastic pep, and Shelby Armstrong as the put-upon mom seems strapped in until Al’s whim runs its course.
So it’s midway through Gabbard’s one-act that the canoe comes into play. As a plot device, the wallop of a canoe has roughly the same decisive effect as an ironing board has in Cariani’s “This Hurts,” where Emma Joles wields the weapon against Scott. For once, this event at Our Place isn’t as consequential as the wallop is in Almost. Or even almost.
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