PORTLAND – John Cariani spent six weeks up north in Presque Isle when he got serious about writing his latest play, “Last Gas.”
Cariani went there to think, because it’s sometimes easier to accomplish big thoughts in a small town than in New York, where he makes his living as an actor and playwright.
“You only write what you know, and you only really know the first 20 years of your life,” he said.
So Cariani went home.
He stayed in the spare bedroom of a high school friend and did a lot of walking while he considered the story he wanted to tell.
The result is “Last Gas,” which gets its premiere this week at Portland Stage Company. It’s Cariani’s second major Maine play. The first, “Almost, Maine,” has achieved astounding success, becoming one of the 10 most-produced plays in the country. It also premiered at Portland Stage, in 2004.
Although the setting is familiar, “Last Gas” is vastly different from “Almost, Maine.”
“Almost, Maine” is a quirky comedy, with some sad moments. “Last Gas” has funny moments, because Cariani is a funny man and handles comedy well. It’s a play filled with happiness and hope, but also has moments of heavy, leaden sadness.
“Last Gas” tells the story of Nat Paradis, who manages a convenience store in northern Maine. It’s the last place to get gas before crossing into Canada.
The idea germinated in 2007, after the Boston Red Sox won their second World Series title in four years. Like a lot of Sox fans, Cariani wondered what his life would be like now that he had experienced what he wanted most. It’s a case of “be careful what you wish for” — once you achieve it, you may be left with an empty feeling.
But this play is not about the Red Sox. It’s about the quiet things that kill people, the internal what-ifs that we all experience, and the everyday choices that we make without thinking about the consequences that reach far beyond our imaginations or expectations.
Nat, an inconsequential man of middle age, has never left home, never seen much of the world. It’s May 2008, and Nat and his buddy, Guy, are getting ready to go to Boston to see the Red Sox play the Yankees at Fenway Park. Those plans get pushed to the side when a high school sweetheart of Nat’s returns home to inter her deceased mother. Lurene’s mom died earlier in the winter and had asked to be buried back home after the spring thaw.
Recently divorced, Lurene shows up at Nat’s store, curious if her feelings for him are what she thinks they are, and whether Nat feels the same.
The story unfolds from there. In the interest of preserving the play’s secrets, we’ll leave the rest of the story untold so theatergoers can experience the drama for themselves.
Suffice to say, it’s an emotional roller-coaster with an ending that may be happy or not, depending on your perspective. In truth, as of this writing, the ending was very much in flux.
Cariani, who has camped out at Portland Stage for three weeks, has furiously rewritten large swaths of the play almost every day after rehearsals. Last week, actors tried several endings to see what worked best. They were not complaining about working on a play so much in flux and having to remember lines one day only to find out the next that they no longer existed.
They were exhausted, but energized to be involved with a work in progress of such emotional impact.
“John finds and honors what’s extraordinary in ordinary lives,” said actress Kathy McCafferty, who plays Lurene. “He’s writing something that people can identify with and understand. I don’t know anyone who writes silent desperation as well as he does, or how he writes adults with a sense of wonder. His plays are filled with moments of wonder-filled beauty and moments of grand devastation and moments that are uncomfortable but funny.”
McCafferty has acted in three productions of “Almost, Maine,” including one in upstate New York that Cariani directed. She learned a lot about Cariani’s sensibilities as a playwright and director when he gave her a note after an “Almost, Maine” rehearsal that said, “I want you to be an elastic. I want you to go up, and I want you to go down within seconds.”
She fell in love with “Last Gas” the moment she read it. To her, the play is about love and the power of hope. “It’s so easy to let hope die, because you have to get on with life,” she said.
Cariani agrees that his play is about hope, but adds a caveat: “It’s also a lot about broken hope. It’s a story about a guy who is sad, and who might also be depressed, though he hasn’t been treated for it.”
Nat is at a point in his life, somewhere north of 30, where he has come to terms with the fact that he has let opportunities pass. He never went to college and never signed up for self-discipline training. Now, when it’s almost too late, he realizes his past is defining his present.
Cariani, 41, has great affection for Presque Isle. He grew up there and made his home there for many years. He is not one of those people who felt he had to leave Presque Isle or Maine to improve his life.
It’s true that he did leave Maine, and has made his life in New York — and made a good life, too, appearing on TV and in movies, even garnering a Tony Award nomination for the acting job he turned in for “Fiddler on the Roof.” He recently filmed a movie with Ed Asner, and you can find him on “Law & Order” reruns regularly.
But he comes home often, and centers his best work on the people and places he knows from his youth. He likes to set his plays in Maine because he wants people from New York to recognize that they are not at the center of the universe, as they sometimes believe.
When he goes to the theater in New York, he rarely sees people he knows in the characters on stage. His goal is to write plays that people from Maine or anywhere else in rural or suburban America will recognize and find relatable.
“Intelligent people live in northern Maine, and people do not have to go away from Maine to do what they want to do,” he said. “Sometimes they do leave, yes. But leaving Maine does not make you better. Just because you live in a city, that doesn’t make you better or smarter.”
Portland theater artist Sally Wood is directing “Last Gas.” This is the fourth play she has directed for Portland Stage, following “Doubt,” “The Gin Game” and “The Drawer Boy.”
She met Cariani at the Little Festival of the Unexpected two years ago, when “Last Gas” received its first reading. She knew right away that she wanted to be involved when the show moved to the main stage.
“He is so bright, he is luminous,” Wood said. “Being around John is like capturing fireflies.”
His writing sparkles because of its honesty and integrity, Wood said. As director, her goal is to create an environment for the actors that supports them emotionally and otherwise, so they can find the true characteristics of the people they portray on stage.
These people are flawed, she said. Their toils are real. Their hurts are tangible.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: