November 7, 2010

Theater Review: 'Last Gas' a full tank of unfulfilled desires

By STEVE FEENEY

Maine-born playwright John Cariani's latest work had its world premiere in Portland on Friday night. And while it may still be a work in progress, "Last Gas" is both very funny and surprisingly thought-provoking. It feels like it comes from the author's heart.

THEATER REVIEW

“LAST GAS,” Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave.

REVIEWED: Nov. 5; continues through Nov. 21

TICKETS: $33-$37

CONTACT: 207-774-0465; www.portlandstage.org

The play takes place at a gas station/convenience store run by three generations of the Paradis family. The business is located near the Canadian border in northern Maine, and much is made in the play of the pluses and minuses of living under the bright stars that sometimes illuminate unfulfilled desires.

Nat Paradis, played in an appropriately halting performance by David Mason, suffers the most as he serves up cigarettes and wine coolers and longs to "get back to happy." As a divorced man with a teenage son and an aging playboy dad, he's a likable if depressed bumpkin.

Nat's buddy Guy, played by Mike Houston as the local burly friend we all sort of think we know, tries to cheer him up with a gift of Red Sox tickets and an invitation to drive through the night to see the game. But then Nat's old flame Lurene shows up.

Portrayed by Kathy McCafferty with that sort of room-filling effervescence that we sense borders on desperation, Lurene is looking hard for something she later learns might never have been real. McCafferty's energetic performance made even her character's rediscovery of a familiar regional confection into a remarkable event.

As Nat's ex-wife, Moira Driscoll had a lot of fun as a forest ranger who likes to give out citations and warn of moose crossing the highways. She unsuccessfully tries to leverage their son Troy's needs to get Nat back into her household.

It is necessary to suspend disbelief just a little to imagine the tall, 20-something Dave Register as the 16-year-old son, but he does a fine job at making it work. Nat's dad Dwight, played as a not always convincing voice of reason by Tom Bloom, chases younger women and tends to walk in on scenes at the wrong time -- or maybe at the right time in terms of moving the story along.

To "take charge" of one's life or to just "live with what's real" are the issues bandied about as the play adopts a more serious tone after a very funny first act. Nat's latest fling with Lurene, which includes some fancy country dancing followed by a most unusual use of Red Sox fandom as an excuse for not getting intimate, ultimately fails. The play then veers a bit sharply and must spend a good deal of its remaining time filling in its narrative to bring things back into line.

Artfully directed by Sally Wood, the acting in "Last Gas" was very good at the opening, and the evocation of place was nicely accomplished. With a perfect two-story set designed by Anita Stewart, the play's technical elements as a whole are among the best in recent memory for Portland Stage.

Though it still may benefit from a few tweaks, the play already is strong in reminding us there are big things in addition to moose that can sometimes wander into our paths and change our lives.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

 

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