October 31, 2010

Almost there

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

Mike Houston, left, as Guy, David Mason as Nat and Kathy McCafferty as Lurenerehearse a scene from “Last Gas.”

Kevin Brusie photo

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John Cariani discusses his play, “Last Gas,” with director Sally Wood, left, and actress Kathy McCafferty as they shape it before its premiere this week at Portland Stage Company.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave.

WHEN: Previews at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday. Continues through Nov. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, plus 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 and 2 p.m. Nov. 18

TICKETS: $14 to $37, 774-0465, www.portlandstage.org


Stars Tom Bloom, Moira Driscoll, Mike Houston, David Mason, Kathy McCafferty and David Register. Directed by Sally Wood. Set design by Anita Stewart. Lighting by Gregg Carville. Composed by Julian Fleisher. Sound by Shannon Zura. Choreography by Maggie Jo Saylor. Stage manager, Shane Van Vliett.

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."

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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John Cariani listens to a reading of his new play, “Last Gas,” at Portland Stage Company. The playwright has rewritten parts of the play throughout three weeks of rehearsals, and last week, the actors tried several endings to see what worked best.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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