Actor, playwright and Broadway star John Cariani will return home to help Portland Stage Company celebrate the state’s bicentennial by acting in a revival of his play “Almost, Maine” in winter 2020. Cariani grew up in Presque Isle and is a Tony Award-nominated actor who has starred in “The Band’s Visit,” “Something Rotten!” and other Broadway musicals.

He’s also a playwright, and “Almost, Maine” is his most popular play. It’s a romantic winter comedy, set in a fictional small town in far northern Maine, where lovers do a lot of hugging, kissing and stargazing. It debuted at Portland Stage in fall 2004 to then-record audiences, had a brief and unsuccessful Off-Broadway run before taking off in regional, high school and college theaters and becoming one of the most-produced plays in the country with nearly 4,000 productions.

Cariani joined Portland Stage executive and artistic director Anita Stewart for Monday’s season announcement. In addition to Cariani’s play, the season will celebrate the centennial of woman’s suffrage with the musical “Sabina” in May 2020.

“Of course, I’m thrilled,” Cariani, 49, said in an interview Monday afternoon. “I’m also just excited to bring it back. It’s been 15 years, and the journey of this play is really weird. It has not taken the usual path that a play that becomes popular takes.”

Which is to say, it did not perform well in New York the first time around. It opened in January 2005 and “got beat up pretty bad,” Cariani said. An Off-Broadway revival in 2014, in which Cariani starred, did much better, propelled by the momentum of the play since its inauspicious New Year opening a decade earlier.

He thinks the play’s rough beginning in New York had to do with cynicism, stigma and stereotypes, and suggested the cool response was because New York audiences weren’t used to seeing rural people and places happily portrayed. Most portrayals of rural people and places in American theater are negative, he said, and those portrayals miss the part of the rural story that Cariani explores in all of  his plays.

“I want Mainers to know that ‘Almost, Maine’ is not just a good play for Maine. It’s a good play for all. The stories about rural people and their hard-scrabble lives are always told as if they are in the past. Hard-scrabble lives exist in the present, and we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to them in American art and culture,” he said.

“But just because your life is hard, that doesn’t mean it’s 100 percent sad. There is a lot of hope in hard lives, and that’s what we need to remind people who are sad and trying to be happy.”

Sally Wood, who just finished directing Monica Wood’s “The Half-Light,” will direct “Almost, Maine,” Cariani said. “When Anita asked me, ‘Would you consider acting in it, ‘I said I would if Sally directs.”

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