PORTLAND – The fall theater season dawns this week when Portland Stage Company opens with the comedy “The 39 Steps.” It’s safe fare — a sure-to-please, fast-paced show with a small cast and huge appeal. The season gets a bit edgier after that.

Over the next few months, Portland theater audiences will have the chance to experience several plays that are just different enough and outside the norm that they conspire to give the fall season a happy edge of anticipation.

Simply put, there’s much to look forward to.

It starts with “The 39 Steps,” a comedy based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie thriller. It’s interesting to note that both Portland Stage and Penobscot Theatre in Bangor open with “The 39 Steps.”

Anita Stewart, Portland Stage’s artistic and executive director, isn’t surprised. “It’s newly available to regional theaters, so it seems that almost every regional theater in the country is doing it. It’s fun, and its a great time,” she said.

Samuel Buggeln directs the show for Portland Stage. He’s a Portland Stage regular, having worked here most recently last season for “Bach at Leipzig.”

Good Theater opens its season Oct. 14 with “August: Osage County.” This production marks just the second regional performance of the play about a dysfunctional Southern family written by Tracy Letts. It won all the major awards in 2008, including a Pulitzer for best drama and Tony for best play. Entertainment Weekly called it one of the best plays of the decade.

“August” ran on Broadway, opened in London and around the world, and then had a U.S. run as a touring production. But it has not been produced regionally until now.

A college theater in Oklahoma, where the play is set, won rights for the first regional production. Good Theater is just the second company with rights to produce the show.

“I was on the licensing people all the time,” says Brian Allen, Good Theater’s artistic director. “I think I annoyed them into giving me the rights.”

Allen is eager to introduce Portland audiences to the play.

“I read it, and I thought it was one of the most incredible scripts I ever read in my life,” he said. “And then I saw it, and it was one the greatest nights of Broadway I’ve ever had in my life. It was so good. It’s such a good story, and full of surprises. It’s a story I wanted to tell.”

On Nov. 2, Portland Stage premieres “Last Gas,” written by John Cariani and directed by Sally Wood. An actor and playwright, Cariani grew up in Presque Isle. Although he may be best known for his recurring role on “Law & Order,” around here he is beloved as the creator of the sentimental comedy “Almost, Maine.”

Portland Stage co-produced that show, which enjoyed a short New York run and has been produced in professional and regional theaters around Maine, across the country and all over the world.

“Last Gas” is Cariani’s latest. It’s about Nat Paradis, who manages the last gas station this side of the border in northern Maine. A visit from an old flame shuffles the cards of his life and forces him to confront his unhappiness. It’s a beautiful piece about relationships and friendships.

“You can see yourself, your friends and your family in little bits of these people,” said Stewart. “It’s fun and funny, and heartfelt.”

The Portland production will be the world premiere for “Last Gas.” Portland Stage produced a working version of the play two years ago during the Little Festival of the Unexpected, and also hosted a stage reading this past summer.

The fall theater season is also one of celebrations and new beginnings.

Mad Horse Theatre, which has made its reputation for presenting thoughtful, edgy theater, loads up for its 25th anniversary season. It opens with “Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare and directed by Peter Brown.

Later on, we get “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia,” a wickedly funny and dark comedy from Edward Albee about a family that disintegrates because the husband falls in love with a farm animal.

For its 25th season, Mad Horse is moving from its recent home in the Studio Theater at Portland Stage to Lucid Stage’s new performance space at 29 Baxter Blvd. in Portland.

Up in Lewiston, the Public Theatre begins its 20th season with the comedy “Indoor/Outdoor,” opening Oct. 15.

Twenty years of professional theater is an accomplishment worth celebrating, said Chris Schario, the theater’s artistic director. “Very few people gave an Equity theater any hope of surviving in Lewiston-Auburn when we began,” he said. “There was a cynical, ‘Well, good luck.’ “

It’s worked because the Public Theatre has made smart programming choices and kept ticket prices reasonable. It costs $18 to see a show there.

“We’ve built a loyal audience by just doing great plays. We do newer things that some people find edgy, and we do some old standards — but not as many old standards as others,” Schario said.

“We pick plays that speak from the heart and are life-affirming, even if the subject matter is dark.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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