‘Almost, Maine’ is absurdist realism

Harold DuckettArts 865

In Theatre Knoxville Downtown’s current play, “Almost, Maine,” playwright John Cariani manages to capture the poignancy, ridiculousness and more than a little absurdity that often comes with falling in and out of love.

In TKD’s production, directed by Matt Lyscas, getting a grip on just who is who can be both confusing and irrelevant.

Performed on a plain stage with minimal changing props, a cast of six – Harrison Akers, Casey Cain, Carolyn Grace Corley, Lia Howard, Julianna Sanderson and Steve Trigg – play 21 different characters in eight short two-character vignettes, plus a 3-part story that’s divided up as the Prologue, Interlogue and Epilogue.

As funny as many of the scenes are, there are also moments of truth. But the shortness of the episodes also prevents one from developing an identity with the characters, caring about them or disliking them. The result is that characters don’t stick in one’s mind, but the situations do.

The concept of the play is set up by its location in Almost, Maine, a locale that’s so far north it’s almost in Canada and a community that never got around to organizing itself into a real town. Yet everything takes place on a “cold, clear, moonless, slightly surreal Friday night.”

In the Prologue, it takes a few moments to catch onto the reverse magnetism in the thinking of Pete, played with geekish lack of emotion by Casey Cain, who tries to explain to Lisa Howard’s baffled Ginette that the closer she moves to him, she is actually farther away.

It’s a bit of logic that makes sense only to Pete, who sees attraction in terms of gravity and magnetism. It elicits the awkward, uncomfortable response one gets when laughing at an unfunny joke because it’s supposed to the funny.

Carolyn Grace Corley, as Gayle, returning huge bags of love to Lendall, played by Steven Trigg

In a scene between Gayle, played with conviction by Carolyn Grace Corley, and Lendall, played with bewilderment that turns into a confession, Gayle shows up at Lendall’s house with huge red, stuffed-full, bags that she says contains all of the love Lendall has given her.

She is returning it because she wants the love she gave Lendall back. It’s an absurdist moment that also makes a certain kind of weird sense.

Most of the other vignettes produce similar reactions. Throughout all of them, the entire cast plays these moments with sincerity and conviction.

The structure of “Almost, Maine” makes the play adaptable to different audiences, although it hasn’t been without controversy. One vignette features two young men at a bar drinking beer, as each of them realizes he is falling in love with the other. Their feelings are expressed in comic pratfalls of falling to the floor repeatedly.

As one might image, in some communities, that scene caught the attention of some parents and politicians, resulting in cancelling of high school productions.

Because the play can cast a large number of people who don’t have to learn a lot of lines, the play is currently the most-performed play by high school theater groups, as well as amateur and professional theater troupes.

As Theatre Knoxville Downtown plays it, “Almost, Maine” is a fun evening that doesn’t load one down trying to remember plot details or even which character was involved in what moments. But there are certainly outcomes that stick in one’s memory.

“Almost, Maine” plays through March 4 at Theatre Knoxville Downtown, 319 N. Gay St. The night I saw the play, it was a near-capacity crowd. For tickets call 865-544-1999.

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